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New York Post

 

Exams We Can Rely On

July 25, 2009

By Marcus A. Winters

WHEN schools and politics collide, is it ever really about the kids? In New York, the answer is usually “no”.

Mayoral hopeful Bill Thompson is using his position as comptroller to trump up charges that Mayor Bloomberg and the schools chancellor, Joel Klein, are cooking the educational-achievement books.

Though there is nothing resembling a smoking gun in the comptroller’s audits, they do contain some ideas worth considering. In fact, the ideas are so reasonable that -- according to the audit itself -- the Department of Education is already considering or in the process of adopting 12 of the 14 proposals for improving test oversight. The tragedy is that it is nearly impossible to separate Thompson’s reasonable suggestions from his overheated rhetoric.

There is nothing to justify his comparison of the Department of Education to Enron, or suggesting that Chancellor Klein should be fired, as he has done in press conferences and interviews.

Political posturing once again is getting in the way of rational discussion of education policy.

We should only care about standardized test scores to the extent that they are reliable measures of student proficiency. Any threat to test validity needs to be taken very seriously. One of the ways a school system can ensure that its test scores are valid is by monitoring its administration. Auditing the administration of the state math and reading exams, as Thompson’s office did, is an important service.

But, as both the audit and Thompson make clear, no evidence of outright cheating was found. In fact, the city’s monitoring system is no less restrictive than state guidelines require. Thompson is simply arguing that we would benefit from raising the bar. OK, fair enough.

Some of the recommendations are trivial. For example, the instructions given to monitors say that they “may open shrink-wrap packages 60 minutes before test administration.” Thompson and the auditors prefer slightly different language. They would like the instructions to read that monitors “may not open” the test packages “until 60 minutes before test administration.”

Let’s not fire Joel Klein over that one, please.

However, the audit makes at least two suggestions that are worth serious consideration. First, teachers shouldn’t proctor their own students’ exams. A teacher might be tempted to help his students on an exam either out of self interest -- he may be accountable if the students perform poorly -- or just because he sympathizes with struggling students with whom he has become close during the year. The Department of Education worries that young students will be uncomfortable being supervised by an unfamiliar adult, but that seems unjustified.

Another useful suggestion is to use erasure analysis to look for cheating. This is a process that many school systems use -- until recently including New York City -- where a computer counts the number of times that a student erased a wrong answer and changed it to the right answer. The idea is that if the student changes his mind to a right answer too often, it is likely his answer sheet has been manipulated in some way. DOE says it is considering cost-effective ways to do erasure analysis, and this is a good idea.

The recent audits by Thompson and his staff are informative and could be useful. But they are unlikely to truly move education policy forward. Thompson’s candidacy, and the venom with which he has attacked Chancellor Klein, reflect poorly on his objectivity as an auditor.

Someday, government officials may be able to rationally discuss education policy. Kids would benefit if that happens. Apparently, they’ll have to wait.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/07252009/postopinion/opedcolumnists/exams_we_can_rely_on_181244.htm

 

 
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