State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis just got caught telling a whopper. He claimed that cheating caused the drop in standardized test scores all across Pennsylvania. Those scores, released a few weeks ago, show a steep decline and mean that 665 fewer schools in the state met education targets. Sec. Tomalis refused to admit that massive budget cuts could possibly have anything to do with the decline, and laid the blame on 100 teachers who remain under investigation for things such as unusual marking patterns on their students’ exams.
Ah yes. One hundred teachers – out of 148,500 education professionals in the state last year – caused scores to drop. The math here doesn’t even make sense. And if teachers helped their students cheat, wouldn’t their test scores have gone up? Never mind. This isn’t about logic. This is about denying that unprecedented state budget cuts have hurt students.
Yet we now have extensive evidence of just how bad Gov. Corbett’s gutting of the education budget has been for our kids. All across the state school districts have been forced to increase class sizes, eliminate tutoring and summer school programs, and lay off teachers. In the past two years, Pennsylvania school children have lost over 18,000 of their teachers and educational staff. (See “Cuts Have Consequences” for all the details.) And we’re supposed to pretend this has had no impact on their learning?
Sec. Tomalis boldly proclaimed that the state’s technical advisory committee reviewed the test scores and was asked, “Could budgets have impacted them? They said no.” In fact, Marianne Perie, a senior associate at the Center for Assessment in Dover, N.H. who facilitated that committee, said no such thing happened. They apparently talked about funding briefly but did not analyze its impact on test scores. “We walked out of there not feeling satisfied we had come up with a solid explanation for the drop,” she said. “As a technical advisory committee, we do not typically comment on policy issues. Funding is a policy issue. We had no data with which to make any analysis of the relationship between the decrease in funding and the drop in scores.” [Post-Gazette, 9-29-12]
Perie later told the Post-Gazette, “I wouldn’t say we ruled it out … I would say we had no comment on it.” [Post-Gazette, 10-8-12] That’s a far cry from concluding that 100 teachers caused test scores to drop in the entire state. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Education Department’s spokesman Tim Eller refused to provide a copy of the committee’s report saying, it’s “under review to determine what portions can be publicly shared.” [Post-Gazette, 9-29-12] Yes, wouldn’t want any of that pesky truth to misinform the public.
It’s bad enough that the state’s education secretary is lying about teachers and our students to cover up the devastatingly obvious effects of budget cuts. But now he seems bent on cheating to boost the appearance of charter school performance, too. You see, too many charter schools are not making education benchmarks, called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), set under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
Granted, NCLB is probably some of the worst education policy our country has ever passed. It has created a culture of punishment and fear, with student “achievement” measured by these highly problematic standardized tests that don’t begin to assess real learning, and teachers evaluated on those test scores and little else. It has narrowed the focus in our schools to reading and math, jettisoned real education in favor of high stakes testing, prompted cheating scandals across the country, and nurtured a system of “teaching to the test” on top of weeks of school time spent on test taking and nothing else. NCLB set a pie in the sky target of 100% proficiency for all U.S. students by 2014, and as that deadline has approached and the proficiency bar has moved ever higher, more schools have “failed” and more teachers have been blamed.
In Pennsylvania only 60.9% of school districts made AYP this year, compared to 94% last year. This was the result of both falling test scores, but also a big step up in proficiency targets: this year 78% of students had to be proficient or advanced in math and 81% had to be proficient or advanced in reading in order to make AYP. [Post-Gazette, 9-21-12] Apparently the Corbett administration was not pleased with the way charter schools were stacking up, so Sec. Tomalis simply changed the rules so that it would be easier for charter schools to make AYP than traditional public schools.
Sec. Tomalis made the change without federal approval, which is required. The U.S. Department of Education says that Pennsylvania’s request to amend the rules is being considered, but that a state is not permitted to make changes without final approval. An investigation by the Lehigh Valley Morning Call revealed that Sec. Tomalis’ change “might have skewed the results of the 2011-12 PSSA scores to make it appear charter schools were outperforming traditional public schools.” [Morning Call, 10-5-12]
The paper found that “a higher percentage of charter schools made AYP in 2011-12 than they did in 2010-11, including 52 that had one or more grade spans that did not hit testing benchmarks. In addition, 14 charter schools that had failing grades last year moved into the passing category this year.” Traditional public schools are not allowed to have a single grade span miss testing benchmarks. But these new rules clearly favor charter schools. For instance, 21st Century Cyber Charter School was allowed to make AYP even though its 11th graders failed to meet benchmarks. And Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School in Philadelphia made AYP even though its middle school failed on five of six reading targets and four of six math targets. [Morning Call, 10-5-12]
This is absurd. Stuart Knade, chief legal counsel for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, also points out that “the change might give the Legislature the false impression that charter schools outperform traditional public schools.” That could have real consequences as our legislators “consider bills supported by Corbett to expand the number of charter schools and change how they are authorized in Pennsylvania.” [Morning Call, 10-5-12] The state already approved four new cyber charter schools this summer, despite massive evidence that cyber charters suck up far more public dollars than it actually costs them to educate students and that they deliver far worse learning outcomes than traditional public schools. [See “Trouble Seeing the Money” and “One Million Per Day” for details.] Knade correctly asserts, “The General Assembly needs to ask what is real and why are we being fed this kind of façade.” [Morning Call, 10-5-12]
So now we have Sec. Tomalis caught fibbing about the impact of 100 accused teachers on statewide test scores, denying that budget cuts have anything to do with those test score declines, and changing the rules so that charter schools look better. From where I sit, that makes him both a liar and a cheat. And what he’s really doing is cheating millions of Pennsylvania school children out of the adequately and equitably funded educations they deserve.