Spin test: More than cheating was at work on student scores

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The percentage of Pennsylvania schools that met federal standards on reading and math tests dropped precipitously this year, and that was bad enough. But equally shocking was Education Secretary Ron Tomalis' conclusion that cheating was the reason.

His conclusion, however, may have been premature and undervalued the influence of a reduction in dollars available to school districts.

Mr. Tomalis started a firestorm when he said last month that the education department's technical advisory committee had looked into three possibilities for the drop in scores -- funding levels, changes in test content and tighter test security. His presentation said the committee "found that the only scientific cause for the drop in scores from 2011 to 2012 was the department's investigation of past testing improprieties, which has led to heightened test security measures."

That was surprising, given that the total number of districts and charter schools investigated for cheating was just 48, and 30 of those were subsequently cleared. His statement that complaints will be filed against more than 100 officials is troubling because any cheating is unacceptable, but it's hard to fathom how their misdeeds could account for the fact that the portion of school districts meeting performance standards fell from 94 percent to 60.9 in just one year.

Also problematic is Mr. Tomalis' statement dismissing the prospect that economics was a factor, particularly now that a member of the advisory committee he referenced said the panel only briefly talked about funding and did not analyze its impact.

"I wouldn't say we ruled it out," Marianne Perie, a senior associate at the Center for Assessment in Dover, N.H., told Post-Gazette education editor Eleanor Chute. "I would say we had no comment on it."

The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials and the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators surveyed the state's 500 districts and reported that, among the 265 that responded, 30 percent furloughed employees this school year and 32 percent reduced or eliminated programs that provided tutoring or other extra help.

If funding reductions caused such widespread changes, why wouldn't those same cuts be expected to affect learning, as measured on standardized tests?

Mr. Tomalis gave an incomplete, possibly incorrect, answer by declaring that past test results were improperly inflated by cheating and absolving funding questions of any responsibility. The state Education Department must provide a better, more complete explanation of why scores dropped in so many districts, and Mr. Tomalis should admit that you get what you pay for.



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