Last week, Esther Jones, the principal of Santa Ana's Saddleback High School, circulated a memo asking teachers to reassess the failing grades of 98 students in hopes of helping the school meet the federal No Child Left Behind Act's standards. The note read, "please review your records for these students and determine if they would merit a grade of 'D' instead of a failure."
Sadly, this isn't surprising. Instead it unfortunately reaffirms an increasingly common practice: from graduation rates to test scores to violence stats, schools across the country are painting a false picture of their performance.
Take Wesley Elementary in Houston. From 1994 to 2003, Wesley won national accolades for teaching low-income students how to read and was featured in an "Oprah" segment on schools that "defy the odds."
It turned out that Wesley wasn't defying the odds at all; the school was cheating. The Dallas Morning News found that in 2003 Wesley's fifth-graders performed in the top 10 percent in the state on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills reading exams. The next year, as sixth-graders at M.C. Williams Middle School, the same students fell to the bottom 10 percent in the state. Wesley teachers admitted cheating was standard operating procedure. But the school wasn't alone. The paper found severe statistical anomalies in nearly 400 Texas schools.
If schools don't want to cheat on the tests, they get rid of poor students. Oak Ridge High School in Florida boosted its test scores after purging its attendance rolls of 126 low-performing students. In 2004, at least 160 Florida schools assigned students to new schools just before standardized testing in a shell game aimed at raising school grades.
Misrepresenting the dropout rate is another common way to make a school's performance look better than it is. The New York Times described an egregious example. Jerroll Tyler was severely truant from Houston's Sharpstown High School. When he showed up to take a math exam required for graduation, he was told he was no longer enrolled. And he never returned.
Imagine Tyler's surprise when he learned a state audit showed Sharpstown had zero dropouts in that year. The school claimed Tyler enrolled in a charter school that he had never even visited.
Creative accounting is happening everywhere. Researchers at Harvard recently found serious discrepancies between their graduation rates - calculated by counting the number of students who move from one grade to the next and then on to graduation - and those offered by education departments in all 50 states.
And when all else fails, schools just make standardized tests easier. States often report test scores are improving when they've simply dumbed-down their standards. Sometimes they change the percentage of correct responses necessary to be labeled "proficient" and sometimes they change the questions.
Of the 41 states that have reported 2004 No Child Left Behind test results so far, 35 states had schools meet the targets by changing the rules used to determine which schools pass and which fail.
Children suffer from schools playing fast and loose with the truth. This is most evident at our most dangerous schools.
In March, 15-year-old Delusa Allen was shot and killed as she left Locke High School in Los Angeles. Four months earlier several kids were injured in a riot at Locke, and last year Los Angeles Unified School District settled a lawsuit with a student who was beaten at the school.
LAPD stats show Locke students suffered three sex offenses, 17 robberies, 25 batteries and 11 assaults with a deadly weapon in the 2003-04 school year.
Sound dangerous? Not in the skewed world of official education statistics. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, states are supposed to designate hazardous schools as "persistently dangerous" and allow students to transfer to safer institutions. By government standards, Locke is not "persistently dangerous."
In fact, only 26 of the nation's 91,000 public schools were so labeled in 2003-04.
The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to let parents and policy makers identify and fix failing schools. More importantly, it was supposed to give kids the right to leave failing or dangerous institutions for better schools. But all that is meaningless if schools and states are allowed to alter the definitions of "failing" and "dangerous" to suit their needs.
Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. She formerly taught speech courses at California State University, Fullerton.