Home > math education, modeling, statistics > Educational accountability scores get politically manipulated again

Educational accountability scores get politically manipulated again

August 3, 2013

My buddy Jordan Ellenberg just came out with a fantastic piece in Slate entitled “The Case of the Missing Zeroes: An astonishing act of statistical chutzpah in the Indiana schools’ grade-changing scandal.”

Here are the leading sentences of the piece:

Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned Thursday amid claims that, in his former position as superintendent of public instruction in Indiana, he manipulated the state’s system for evaluating school performance. Bennett, a Republican who created an A-to-F grading protocol for Indiana schools as a way to promote educational accountability, is accused of raising the mark for a school operated by a major GOP donor.

Jordan goes on to explain exactly what happened and how that manipulation took place. Turns out it was a pretty outrageous and easy-to-understand lie about missing zeroes which didn’t make any sense. You should read the whole thing, Jordan is a great writer and his fantasy about how he would deal with a student trying the same scam in his calculus class is perfect.

A few comments to make about this story overall.

  1. First of all, it’s another case of a mathematical model being manipulated for political reasons. It just happens to be a really simple mathematical model in this case, namely a weighted average of scores.
  2. In other words, the lesson learned for corrupt politicians in the future may well to be sure the formulae are more complicated and thus easier to game.
  3. Or in other words, let’s think about other examples of this kind of manipulation, where people in power manipulate scores after the fact for their buddies. Where might it be happening now? Look no further than the Value-Added Model for teachers and schools, which literally nobody understands or could prove is being manipulated in any given instance.
  4. Taking a step further back, let’s remind ourselves that educational accountability models in general are extremely ripe for gaming and manipulation due to their high stakes nature. And the question of who gets the best opportunity to manipulate their scores is, as shown in this example of the GOP-donor-connected school, often a question of who has the best connections.
  5. In other words, I wonder how much the system can be trusted to give us a good signal on how well schools actually teach (at least how well they teach to the test).
  6. And if we want that signal to be clear, maybe we should take away the high stakes and literally measure it, with no consequences. Then, instead of punishing schools with bad scores, we could see how they need help.
  7. The conversation doesn’t profit  from our continued crazy high expectations and fundamental belief in the existence of a silver bullet, the latest one being the Kipp Charter Schools – read this reality check if you’re wondering what I’m talking about (hat tip Jordan Ellenberg).
  8. As any statistician could tell you, any time you have an “educational experiment” involving highly motivated students, parents, and teachers, it will seem like a success. That’s called selection bias. The proof of the pudding lies in the scaling up of the method.
  9. We need to think longer term and consider how we’re treating good teachers and school administration who have to live under arbitrary and unfair systems. They might just leave.
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  1. August 5, 2013 at 4:44 pm
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