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From the publisher: “Juking the stats” in DPS

Posted by May 31st, 2011.

Juking the stats. Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before.” – a cop-turned-teacher in HBO’s series “The Wire,” when asked to boost test scores.

Last week’s article in Westword about abuses in Denver North High School’s “credit recovery” program touched a nerve, and for good reason. It’s a textbook example of kids being used to make adults look better.

There’s no reason to believe the problems detailed in Melanie Asmar’s story are limited to North. In fact I’ve received emails from people at other Denver high schools alleging similarly questionable practices. And the New York Times wrote a national story about credit recovery abuses in April.

I’m sure most of the adults involved – heck, probably all of them – allowed and in some cases encouraged kids to cheat on credit recovery homework and exams thinking it was in the best interest of those kids. So many studies, after all, have shown that young people’s prospects improve significantly with a high school diploma.

District leadership needs to do some soul-searching about whether the pressure exerted on high schools to improve graduation rates tacitly encourages school administrators to juke the stats to make themselves and the district look better.

If the diploma has been watered down to the extent that the credential becomes meaningless, though, then every graduate of North High School is hurt by this extreme manifestation of the “pobrecito syndrome” (as in “oh, these poor babies’ lives are so hard we can’t expect too much of them.”)

There’s also an element here of gaming the system for less altruistic reasons. Juking the stats doesn’t just happen in “The Wire.”  It’s exactly what happened in North High’s credit recovery program.

For those of you who haven’t read it, here are the main points from Asmar’s story.

  • North began using credit recovery in 2008, when its graduation rate was 46 percent. The program allows students who have failed core courses to retake them online with adult supervision.
  • By 2010, North’s graduation rate had jumped to 64 percent.
  • Asmar uncovered information from sources and records showing that kids and adults gamed the system, thereby increasing pass rates. Kids used search engines to find answers or took tests repeatedly until they got the right answers and then passed those answers on to friends. Adult supervisors said North administrators “encouraged and even helped” kids find ways to pass online tests.
  • North students in credit recovery could get a semester’s credit simply by taking the credit recovery final exam for a given course, which caused Asmar’s sources to wonder “whether they really learned anything at all.” Yet a senior DPS administrator, Antwan Wilson, was quoted by Asmar defending this practice.

There are many more depressing details in the story, but you get the drift.

It sure sounds like juking the stats to me. And, as in “The Wire,” while it benefits some people, it hurts others. In this case, it’s allowing students to graduate from high school without demonstrating in any meaningful way that they have learned enough to succeed in higher education or the job market.

The good news here is that plenty of caring teachers at North were outraged by the shenanigans and blew the whistle by calling Asmar. The bad news is that they resorted to this because they couldn’t get any satisfaction inside their own building. Westword found emails showing that one mid-level administrator at 900 Grant Street knew students were using the Web to cheat, and urged the school to block those sites during tests. But apparently no one from the district followed up, and North kept the sites unblocked.

Once Asmar brought the issue to the district’s attention, Wilson, DPS’ assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness told her that the district would audit the transcripts of every North graduate over the past two years. But what will the district do with its findings? And what, exactly, can an audit prove?

It is incumbent upon the district to launch a major investigation into credit recovery practices in all its high schools. In the unlikely event that North proves to be an isolated case, the people found responsible should face harsh sanctions (Assistant Principal Nancy Werkmeister, identified in Westword as the administrator in charge of the program, recently retired, and the principal, Ed Salem, is leaving the district).

If, as seems more likely, the investigation uncovers similar problems in other schools, then the district needs to do a couple of things. First, it needs to tighten its implementation of the credit recovery program and write clear regulations about how credit recovery computer labs are monitored.

More important, though, the district leadership needs to do some soul-searching about whether the pressure exerted on high schools to improve graduation rates tacitly encourages school administrators to juke the stats to make themselves and the district look better.

Miraculously boosting graduation rates by giving would-be dropouts a meaningless diploma does no one any favors. And it sure as hell doesn’t make anyone look good. Quite the contrary.

Scandals of this sort call into question all the data the district releases trumpeting its improvement, and give fodder to the district’s relentless critics. Does DPS release the numbers without vetting them? Does it cast a beady eye and investigate suspicious jumps in test scores and graduation rates at specific schools?

I hope so. If district officials believe in statistical near-miracles, then (to borrow a parable I once heard) they are like the man who gains 50 pounds, can’t fit into his clothes, buys a much larger pair of pants, finds that they fit well and proclaims, “See, I’m in shape!”

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15 Responses to “From the publisher: “Juking the stats” in DPS”

  1. Hear, hear, Alan. I salute your frankness here, and I am glad that you are firmly focused on the quality of education our kids are getting. These are precisely the issues to raise.

    As a board member with a great relationship with both parent and teacher constituents alike, I hear this kind of thing happening all the time. However, when the Superintendent sends out emails at the beginning of a school year telling principals that they are not to talk to me, it makes fixing these types of problems all the more difficult. I have repeatedly implored the Super to let me do my statutory job so that I can share at least anecdotal evidence of system breakdowns and thereby work as a team. When there is this level of obstruction, however, with no accountability or leadership from the district leaders, it makes a collaborative, problem-solving effort all but impossible.

    Arturo Jimenez is pulling together a task force of parents, teachers and students (former and current) to troubleshoot what’s actually going on. It’s his hope to run a resolution before the end of this calendar year to put some clear direction in place for district leadership. There will be clear policy guidelines for district leadership to follow without hurting students. In too many cases, we find that there are no board policies to guide certain situations, and district leadership has to make too many judgment calls…which is difficult to do if you’re not actually working at the school level or have your ear regularly to the ground at the constituent level.

    Arturo says more at his website and released a statement to Westword about this issue. Check out http://arturojimenez.com

    And yes, the district REGULARLY releases numbers without vetting them. Here’s an example: back in March was the press junket about the decreased dropout rate using inflated student population numbers (http://andreamerida.com/2011/03/dropout-data-discrepancy/). For example, they showed Lincoln with over 3,000 students, when we all know it’s around 2,000.

    Tread carefully; you’re starting to sound like Arturo, Jeannie and me.

    Great piece, Alan.

    • Ed Augden says:

      I also commend you, Alan. As a retired DPS teacher, I witnessed much of such chicanery. “Guaranteed Graduate Outcomes” was such a program implemented long before Bennet and Boasberg. I was trained to implement Great Books as part of a Gifted & Talented program. The cost of training to the district was several thousand dollars. For some unknown reason, the program was eliminated just as it was beginning. Thus, when the latest “educational reform” movement began, it simply meant abandoning such effective learning strategies as inquiry learning in favor of standardized testing. That’s regress, not progress. Keep digging, Alan. Again, peruse the 2006 Harvard Civil Rights Study Project, “Denver Public Schools: Re-segregation, Latino Style.” Then, ask Boasberg if he’s aware of the study and, if so, why it’s being ignored?

  2. Jeannie Kaplan says:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/01/opinion/01ravitch.html?ref=opinion

    As other examples of what you are citing, Alan, please note Diane Ravitch’s piece in today’s New York Times. Has “juking the stats” become more important than actually educating children? I would hope not but questions are being raised about truth in data. As a friend of mine says, “If one box in the spreadsheet is wrong, all the rest of the information becomes suspect.”

    And the questions don’t stop here: what about a high school procedure (ZAP – zeroes aren’t permitted) that mandates teachers change zeroes (for assignments not turned in) into 54′s so failure isn’t really possible. Now we can discuss the pros and cons of “F’s” but I think it is difficult to argue that this is not an example of lowering expectations. You average an 80, for example, with a zero and then do an 80 with a 54. See what you come up with. And I can’t leave without mentioning what I believe to be a lowering of expectations for DPS students: no language requirements for graduation and a math curriculum that for whatever reason is not preparing our kids for geometry in the 10th grade (meaning algebra in the 8th grade which by most measurements means college ready by graduation). We keep making excuses for why this isn’t happening. Isn’t it time to tell the truth about these things as well?

    Thank you for your honesty. I hope this starts a new conversation, one that can is not dominated by public relations but by the truth.

    Jeannie Kaplan
    DPS Board Member
    District 3

  3. Van Schoales says:

    This is a very important story that requires a strong comprehensive response from DPS. Having just attended a wonderful DPS graduation ceremony at DSA (the work that every one of those HS graduates did was truly remarkable), I know that some DPS diplomas count. Every one of DPS’s diplomas should carry meaning about what a student knows and can do.

    While I strongly support Tom Boasberg and many of the reforms that DPS has promoted over the last decade, this scandal could very much undermine much of the good work the district has done so far. It will also further erode the trust between Denverites and the district.

    It reminds of the project that Alan and I directed a few years ago that showed DPS had not moved achievement under Jerry Wartgow even though the district and state were saying that schools had made significant progress. The district’s response back then was to ignore or change the subject in addition to disenfranchising the messengers from the district. At the time when our report and the Denver Post stories came out, some district leaders admitted to me that not much had changed but they needed to get some good news out so more folks would support the district for bonds, enrollment, etc. That episode reminded me of the lies that the Bush administration had just fostered to invade Iraq. I’m hoping that this time around the district does the right thing and finally addresses the problem of rigor in most of the high schools.

    School reform and improvement is not easy, it requires honest reporting, hard work and radical change in practice. A few add-on programs that generate more graduates unable to read, write, compute, problem solve or create will only lead to more cynicism about urban public education.

    By the way, this should not be an opportunity for those that have fought reform all along to claim that this is further evidence that the district is moving in the wrong direction. It’s not, the district has made measurable progress recently. I know that many of the problems in DPS high schools go back decades. The questions are whether all of us can work together (particularly the board and administration) to get more kids to graduate prepared for life and whether this administration will address the problems found in these schools.

    • Van, what can you point to that leads you to the conclusion that the district has made “measurable progress,” at least in the past 5 years? Show me the indicators that the nearly 90% of all DPS students that attend public schools are getting our best efforts.

      I’m literally scratching my head over this. Where is the radical progress the corporate reform movement keeps talking about? I mean, it’s not a political issue that can be blamed on the “divided board.” You have the votes, after all.

      What will it take for you to admit that there’s no appreciable there, there?

      I take my hat off to the valiant teachers and others that came forward to contribute to the story. It’s a further indication of the commitment that our teachers and staff actually have to the success of our students. But they are not the problem. The real source of the problem is the dogged refusal of the ideologues in charge to do precisely as you suggest, Van, which is the “honest reporting, hard work and radical change in practice.” I couldn’t agree with you more.

      I have told the Superintendent, on more than one occasion, that if he were willing to proceed on any given initiative with honest data, a well-researched and vetted plan and transparency, I would support him all the way. I I stood with him when he decided to restrict DPS staff business travel to Arizona when the apartheid laws were being passed. It’s that kind of courage to do the right thing that will get my unflagging support every time. So why don’t you work with me to get him to do the right thing for our kids? Why do you insist on politicizing every honest debate about whether we fulfill our promise to Denver’s kids?

      My opinion is that because of the district’s negligence in vetting its own statistics and policies, we are flying blind. Any meager improvement can therefore only be attributable to the luck of the draw.

      Ever notice what happens when you play any blindfolded game? Oftentimes the direction in which you think you’re moving ends up not being what you expected once you take off the blindfold, right? In fact, sometimes you’re even 180 degrees off course. So too is the course on which DPS is moving. While we may not be sticking a pin in anyone’s backside with the blindfold on, we sure are sticking a pin into the hopes and dreams of our kids.

      Why don’t you reach out to Arturo Jimenez and join his credit recovery review committee?

      • Van Schoales says:

        Andrea,

        Thanks for the conversation. I agree with you about the need to focus on data and transparency.

        In terms of DPS progress, I would point to a variety of indicators not limited to the following which include growth on CSAP relative to other districts, the development of a number of new high quality schools (district, innovation and charter), turning around the district’s enrollment and also righting the district’s finances. There are a number of other innovative initiatives that the district has taken on that will show soon whether things are working or not. For many years, from the mid 90’s till about 2007 the district data was flat or declining on most measures. DPS has made progress and is clearly a national leader on a number of fronts.

        I think we probably agree that the district (like most districts) has had great difficulty honestly reflecting on what has worked and not at least when it comes to public reporting. This by the way this is hardly new…it’s part of the problem with the political cycles and changes with superintendents. You are either pro- DPS or anti-DPS. This is a challenge that all of us are going to have to overcome if we are ever to have a district that is as reflective as any great teacher on their classroom practice.

        On the North front, I’m more interested in being involved in a district wide conversation about the metrics and content of a DPS diploma. I believe the issues are much wider and deeper than this particular credit recovery program. The district, which includes the whole board and superintendent, not individual board members need to step up and deal with these issues.

        • So in other words, no, you will not work with Arturo. That’s fine. We have it on the record.

        • Oh, and by the way, what I asked you was to cite specifics about how we’re making things better for the 90% that don’t attend charters. And the question I keep asking is, “how do we know a school is high-quality if it’s NEW?”

          It’s really hard to list anything truly substantive, isn’t it, especially in light of the spike in remediation rates.

          We do agree on reflecting on what works. In fact, we’re terrible at replicating neighborhood school success. We don’t allow successful principals to stay in their schools and possibly creating an “incubator” for good leadership with a particular school community demographic.

          I have to say also that the whole notion that we board members should wait around, waiting for us to simultaneously step up, is a little silly. In a policy-making body, it’s normal for one board member (or a group) to be the catalyst for policy creation or revision. Otherwise we’d all be sitting in a circle, waiting to see who blinks first.

          • Van Schoales says:

            A couple of points-

            1) I never suggested that you should sit and wait for anything. In fact, I think you all need to be working harder given the dire needs of kids in DPS. You all are our elected leaders. Evidence of real leadership from you and other board members would include reaching across these political chasms to build a coalition to address this issues with the whole board and DPS administration.

            2) We (and you) need to look closely at the data for district and charter managed schools in DPS to see what’s working. I think you’ll find that there is some compelling achievement data from both types of schools showing that the district has made progress at the elementary levels. Progress at the high school is a bit more debatable given the remediation rates and ACT scores though here again on balance there is progress with more kids staying in school and going to college even if they appear to be not well prepared. Having said that, there are too few good school and the improvement is not fast enough. There are way too many failing schools that need to be radically improved or replaced (and these are not limited to district schools).

  4. Leigh Campbell-Hale says:

    The Westword article points out problems not just with DPS online recovery programs, but also with all online classes. Cheating is rampant and there’s often very little learning going on. But they’re cheap!

  5. Alexander Ooms says:

    It’s a wonderfully amusing conversation when the outrage is directing entirely at the cheating, and the congratulations directed entirely at the unmasking of the cheating, all while the plain fact that less than 50% of North students are likely to have earned graduation seems to bother no one at all.

  6. Elise Edelson Katch says:

    Alan: Thanks so much for the gutsy piece. So can we assume that Bruce Randolph’s “97 %” graduation rate” and Manual’s “on track to be number one in graduation” are also suspect? Most likely.

    Elise Edelson Katch

  7. Elisa Cohen says:

    We don’t need a task force for Credit Recovery.

    Set up testing computers that block Google and and other sites. Then the students will need to know the material before they are allowed to use the testing computers. It is 100% possible from a technology angle. The issue at North was that administrators refused to block Google.

    We need to change administrator incentives to reward college readiness, not graduation rates.

    • Mike Galvin says:

      Should we wonder about the rigor of the examinations when access to Google provides students the ability to pass?

      I would hope that college readiness has more to do with critical thinking, expository writing, deconstructing text, comparing points of view, etc., none of which can be copied from Google.

  8. Michael Kane says:

    I am appalled that an article such as this would be published without inclusion of the word Accountability. The term appears in once in a response from Ms. Merida, yet the term seems to have been omitted from the vocabulary of the remainder of the Board.

    It is obvious at this point that the students who allegedly cheated will not be held accountable. It is not as if the district will conduct its’ audit and ask those students to return their diplomas. That would be bad PR.

    The two named building level administrators who oversaw this alleged fraud and abuse have either recently retired or left the district. No accountability there. No mention of accountability for those who supervised these alleged charlatans. No mention of accountability for the district administrator who knew of the issue but did not follow up in seeing that it was rectified.

    Is ACCOUNTABILITY merely a buzzword reserved for conversations about teachers?

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