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Michelle Rhee Digging Deeper

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Michelle Rhee Digging Deeper"

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I think virtually 100 percent of the policy conclusions that people have been drawing about standardized testing irregularities out of DC are wrong. What I conclude from this is that precisely because regular testing is appropriate and important, we need to try somewhat harder to police cheating on the tests. But instead of saying something sensible like that, Michelle Rhee seems to have decided that the fact that she has enemies absolves her of responsibility:

“It isn’t surprising,” Rhee said in a statement Monday, “that the enemies of school reform once again are trying to argue that the Earth is flat and that there is no way test scores could have improved … unless someone cheated.”

USA TODAY’s investigation into test scores “is an insult to the dedicated teachers and schoolchildren who worked hard to improve their academic achievement levels,” Rhee said.

It’s really not surprising that they’re arguing this. And yet the evidence with regard to this school is that there was, in fact, cheating. And for all the same reasons that it’s stupid to say we shouldn’t test kids and use test results to guide policy, it’s stupid to say we should blind ourselves to cheating. As I’ve said before, it seems to me that the dialectical dynamic here just points to un-funding the K-12 education system. On the one hand we have “reformers” who don’t really care if tests are accurate as long as “reformers” are in charge of school systems. Then on the other hand we have people who’ve decided that the one true progressive pro-teacher position is to insist that schooling doesn’t matter and educational attainment can’t be measured.

Meanwhile, I think a lot of progressives wringing their hands about the limited ability of a standardized test to capture the full range of learning experiences sort of have their heads in the sand about the actual state of learning in America. This is the definition of “basic” reading competence for NAEP Grade 8:

Eighth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to locate information; identify statements of main idea, theme, or author’s purpose; and make simple inferences from texts. They should be able to interpret the meaning of a word as it is used in the text. Students performing at this level should also be able to state judgments and give some support about content and presentation of content.

Nationwide, 26 percent of 8th grader are below this level. They can’t identify statements of main idea, theme, or author’s purpose; and make simple inferences from texts. 26 percent! Among boys, that rises to 30 percent. For black students, it’s 44 percent. For students eligible for school lunches it’s 40 percent. This kind of basic reading competency is definitely something we can measure on standardized tests. And it’s important. The large minority of students who don’t attain this level of reading proficiency in 8th grade aren’t going to be able to engage in meaningful learning in high school. They’ll be easy targets for financial ripoffs. They won’t have access to political information and won’t be able to effectively monitor the behavior of their elected representatives.

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