Say What??? Superintendent Responds To News Articles

Dr. Rick Buresh, Superintendent of Schools

What a shock it was for me to wake up to the Sunday morning Forum front page headline, Fargo schools’ test scores ‘suspicious’! The story was based on a series of articles published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from Atlanta, Georgia. The authors of the Atlanta story allege that many schools across the country have suspicious performance results that might signal cheating. They base this allegation on observation through their statistical analysis of student group performance. Their model “flags” any groups whose collective performance varies beyond a threshold that they arbitrarily set. A “flag” is earned based on exceeding this threshold either up or down. The groups are defined as grade levels in a building.

So based on a remote statistical analysis from 1,400 miles away, a cloud of suspicion has been cast on seven North Dakota school districts. One hundred ninety-six districts nationwide have been identified as “suspicious” including Bismarck and Fargo Public Schools. Several other North Dakota districts have been placed in another category of slightly less suspicion by this group.

Not to be outdone by the Forum, now the Grand Forks Herald has joined the discussion by publishing an editorial calling for an investigation. All this based on a wild swing by a group of statisticians from 1,400 miles away who applied a single statistical model to all 50 states, each with a unique accountability system, unique assessment, and unique metric. I am skeptical. Several thoughts come to mind…

1.      For every complex issue, there is usually a very simple explanation – and it is usually WRONG!

Dr. Grosz and I will attempt to discover what data they could have examined that would have led to their placing us under such a cloud of suspicion. Their statistical analysis looks for increases or decreases in scaled scores beyond that which would be typical. Actually, our performance results have had very modest gains. Dr. Grosz and I will do some more consulting and exploring to confirm or reject this theory. We had a phone conference with the Department of Public Instruction and their technical advisors Tuesday afternoon. None of us have been able to find anything suspicious. None of us are aware of any allegations of cheating in Fargo or anywhere else in North Dakota. 

2.      This reminds me of a dynamic that occurs sometimes when someone gets caught doing something wrong. The offender attempts to justify their own wrong-doing by alleging that everyone is doing it.

Starting in 2008 and culminating in a 2011 investigative report, the Atlanta Public Schools were charged with serious systemic assessment cheating committed by school officials. This story conjures the “everyone is doing it” justification – especially since it’s coming from an Atlanta news source.

Here is a link to the Atlanta scandal expose…

Not to be left out of the fun, now the Grand Forks Herald published an editorial wagging their accusatory finger at us…

3.      Bismarck, Fargo and all North Dakota schools have little or no motivation for the sort of cheating hinted at in this story.

North Dakota is a “low stakes” state when it comes to state accountability measures. Sanctions placed on most schools here that fail to make AYP are not pleasant, but they are tolerable. This is especially true for Fargo and Bismarck. There are no financial, job, accreditation, or survival consequences for the district or educators in North Dakota. The obvious question would be, “Why would a North Dakota teacher, counselor, or principal risk cheating on such a test?” The only adverse public consequence for failing to make Annual Yearly Progress is the humiliation of being labeled as a school or district that has failed to make AYP under No Child Left Behind. Both Fargo and Bismarck districts have already been labeled under NCLB as failing to make AYP, as have most large North Dakota districts. This unwelcome labeling has come at the hands of NCLB, a widely discredited and unpopular federal education policy. This unwelcome identification has already been endured by our schools, we have “taken our licks” and we have moved on. Despite this questionable label, most students, parents, and communities in our state continue to have confidence in the education provided by their local schools. There is much support for public schools in Fargo, Bismarck, and other parts of the state. Again, I ask, “Why would a North Dakota teacher, counselor, or principal risk cheating on such a test?” There is simply nothing to gain by doing the sort of cheating suggested by this article. With nothing more than some statistician’s glance from afar, it is wildly irresponsible to be making scurrilous innuendos of cheating by educators.

If it is determined that cheating has occurred, the results show that they obviously did a very poor job of cheating. Fourteen of our seventeen schools have been identified as having failed to make AYP. FPS, as a district, has also been tagged as failing to make AYP – all the result of performance within its subgroups. If cheating has occurred, there has been no apparent benefit to the District.

In closing I say most emphatically, I have seen or heard nothing to cause me to suspect that there has been any cheating on the North Dakota State Assessments in Fargo Public Schools. State officials charged with administering the statewide test report that they have not seen or heard of any impropriety to investigate. Prior to this long distance, pseudo-statistical wild swing, no one has made any allegation of cheating on the NDSA in FPS, or elsewhere in North Dakota for that matter.

We will continue to conscientiously follow the test security protocols associated with NDSA administration and closely monitor for the potential of cheating. We will continue to be vigilant because it is the right thing to do and because our public expects it. We will vigorously investigate any credible allegation of cheating yet to come. While we have serious concerns about the current NCLB federal policy, we will continue to take up its challenge to strive to improve student performance and achievement in whatever ethical and responsible way we can, just as we did before enactment of NCLB.

We look forward to a significantly improved new federal education policy/law.