Are Schools' Test Score Gains Too Good To Be True?

A series in USA Today this week questions whether there is wide-scale cheating on standardized tests used to rank and evaluate schools. In several cases, schools made wildly improbable gains on tests in one year -- only to lose the gains in the next.

California schools are among those who showed this troubling pattern (USA Today found 112 incidents that were investigated), and a charter school company was shut down after cheating was confirmed. But most schools dispute that they cheated.

Consider USA Today's account of how one school in the Southern California city of Pico Rivera responded to questions about its scores:

"...students at Montebello Gardens Elementary School jumped from the 17th percentile statewide in second-grade math in 2005 to the 85th percentile in third grade a year later. Similarly, second-graders scored in the 40th percentile in math in 2007, then jumped as third-graders to the 93rd percentile in 2008. In both cases, the gains were lost in fourth grade.

"I can look at my faculty and I know unequivocally they are following the directions in a moral, ethical manner," says Norma Perez, the school principal. "We will never, ever have anyone from the state question, 'How is it that you did well?' We did it because we earned it." She attributes the school's success to "optimism and hard work" and a team of "incredibly dedicated teachers." She adds, "It's never worth even attempting to do something that's not fair because it's not fair to the children."

"Montebello Unified School District Superintendent Art Revueltas chuckles at the suggestion that the school's gains could be too good to be true. "Technically, I've been told, that's impossible, but they did it," he says. "They got everybody to learn." He adds that Perez's students, like others in the district, take many practice tests."

Authorities need to take a hard look at the results in this school -- and others. Given the high stakes involved in such tests, Californians need to know what results are real, and which are phony.

(Full disclosure: my mother, an editor at USA Today, was involved in this series).

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