Follow the Grades

The real fraud at DISD is in test scores, not money

I am sitting here looking at a mathematical formula buried in the middle of a dry bureaucratic memo, and I really don't know if I should react with tears, horror, or wrath. Every time I re-read this and think about what it really means, the first thing I feel is a green surge of nausea.

For the last several days, I have been trading e-mail with Dallas Independent School District teachers who have always suspected there was a secret formula for inflating grades on the so-called ACP exams--the tests the district gives middle- and high-school students at the end of every course to see if they have learned the material.

A teacher told me: "When I started, my students got a bunch of 85s and 90s on their ACPs, and I was thinking, man, I did great. But the older teachers laughed at me and said, 'They curve the grades on that thing. Everybody knows that.'"

She tried to find out in subsequent faculty meetings if the ACP grades really were curved, but she never got a straight answer.

The answer is yes. I have an internal DISD memo that proves it. There is a formula. The formula puffs up scores by almost a third, so that a 55 percent grade on an ACP exam becomes a 70 percent grade on a student's report card and permanent record.

District officials told me the formula is not a secret. After all, I managed to get it. But I already had a copy leaked to me. And then I had to threaten a lawsuit to get an official copy from DISD. And Robert Mendro, whose office devises the formula and sent out the memo, conceded that teachers may not have been informed of the formula because of "a lack of communication."

Yeah. Funny how that happens.

What the memo describes is a kind of double-bookkeeping for district-wide end-of-course examinations, or ACP exams (assessment of course performance). These tests are put together by the Office of Test Development to see if students have learned the minimum requirements for each course.

Normally at DISD, a score of 70 percent is passing, and everything under that is a fail. But in the case of the ACP, it's different. Very different.

For the ACP, DISD suspends its normal rules and decrees that 55 percent is a passing grade on the ACP for most courses. In fact, the passing grade goes even lower in the tougher courses. In pre-advanced placement chemistry, for example, a score of 40 percent is deemed to be passing.

Now, some of these courses have more than 100 separate things the state says have to be taught in the course. So in order to swallow this grade-inflation formula, you have to buy the idea in the first place that a kid can score as low as 40 percent on a test that's testing him on as many as 100 things, and he still passes. He is still judged to have mastered the subject.

It's a little hard to figure, isn't it? Did they ask all the questions three different ways, and the kid with the 40 percent grade got them all right once but wrong twice? Did he score great on all the pre-advanced placement chemistry questions on the test but miss all of the fake questions they slipped in about French existentialism?

It's hard to figure, isn't it?

But before you even try to figure it, let me give you one more very important piece of information from my little memo. According to the memo, all teachers whose classes earn an average grade of less than 70 percent get little black marks next to their names to show that their students have not learned the stuff.

Let me make a suggestion: If all the teachers whose students score lower than 70 percent get a little black mark next to their names, doesn't that make you think that 70 percent is the real pass mark?

Add it up. You're a teacher. If your kids score under 70, you get a "double-asterisk" in your personnel file. In other words, there is a bad consequence for you on your record for all the kids who score under 70 percent. And 70 percent is the pass mark for all other DISD grades. So wouldn't you think 70 percent must be the pass mark on the ACP?

So why would they say it's 40 percent? Or 55 percent? Now, here is where we get into the hocus-pocus. On a typical ACP exam in Dallas, the vast majority of students score lower than 70 percent. In Algebra I, semester I, for school year 1999-2000, for example, ACP exams were administered to students in 34 middle schools and high schools in Dallas. Of those 34 schools, students in exactly one school had mean scores above 70 percent. If DISD had made these same results public in this same form, then you and I and everyone else in town would have known that only one of 34 schools achieved average passing grades on the Algebra I ACP exam.

That's bad. That's a big story. Especially when it happens on all of the ACP exams at pretty similar rates. That tops the 6 p.m. news, you bet!

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