Michigan to Investigate ‘Statistically Improbable’ Jump in Test Scores

Schools are understandably cutting corners in their race to the top.

By Julianne Hing Mar 09, 2011

The Michigan State Board of Education has launched an investigation into 34 schools in the state who reported test score improvements that a recent Detroit Free Press and USA Today investigation found to be "statistically improbable."

The Detroit Free Press and USA Today examined scores from a three to seven-year span and focused on schools that posted test score gains higher than 99.9 percent of their peers around the state. They found that between 2008 and 2009, 34 Michigan schools–32 of which are in metro Detroit–posted gains that were too good to be true, which suggest that cheating of some kind may have taken place. At Crofoot Elementary School, which in 2006 was cited for cheating on standardized tests, state officials found that in 2003, fourth graders were 39 percent proficient in math. By the very next year fourth graders were 87 percent proficient, and by 2005 they were 100 percent proficient.

The newspapers examined changes between years in test scores and the investigation found similar questionable test score improvements in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida and Ohio.

Test experts say that they are not proof of misconduct, and that students are capable of making personal achievement leaps, but that these sorts of gains in entire classrooms are improbable. In the most common scenarios teachers peek at the test questions and use them to drill their students, sometime even copying questions verbatim on study guides, so their students can be prepared.

Education experts say these sorts of scandals are symptoms of an education system that places an unhealthy emphasis on the importance of test scores. Under No Child Left Behind and provisions of the competitive education grants program Race to the Top, schools can be shut down and teachers and principals fired if they do not make adequate progress in raising student test scores.

Michigan applied for $400 million of the $4.3 billion pot of Race to the Top money available to states who adopted Obama administration reforms. In the run-up to the competition the state rewrote many education laws which allowed for the creation of more charter schools and adopted a system to overhaul schools that were deemed failing. Michigan also agreed to make student test scores a "significant" part of how teachers were evaluated. In two rounds of the competition Michigan hasn’t won anything in return for adopting its new policies.

Michigan public schools desperately needed the money–and that’s where the Department of Education is able to leverage its power to force states to adopt reforms. In 2010 Gov. Jennifer Granholm announced that the state school budget would be slashed by more than $200 million. The scandal-plagued and long-suffering Detroit Public Schools are also hundreds of millions of dollars in the red.

The race to the top, the race to "win the future" has run on a blind faith in standardized tests and unquestioning commitment to punitive teacher accountability measures. Michigan’s new test score woes show that the country may be using the wrong methods to chase its goals. That hasn’t stopped the state from pushing forward. In February the state board of education agreed to adopt a higher "cut-off" score for students to be considered proficient on the state standardized tests.