The vote was a foregone conclusion; the minds were made up long before the Senate Education Committee members cast their votes to kill SB 41 by Sen. Bob Kostelka (R-Monroe).
The vote that killed the bill was anti-climactic at best. The testimony of a band director and self-proclaimed “highly qualified” math teacher, however, provided the bombshell that Superintendent John White and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) would rather you not know.
His testimony evoked memories of Michelle Rhee’s tumultuous reign in Washington, D.C. and of more recent events in Atlanta.
It was purely academic that only two of the eight committee members would vote in favor of sending the bill to make the Louisiana Superintendent of Education position elective again after nearly two decades of having an appointive superintendent.
And one of those two votes in favor—that of Sen. Mike Walsworth (R-West Monroe) was purely for show because (a) he knew the result well in advance, so his vote would not affect the outcome and (b) about 75 percent of those attending the committee meeting were from Ouachita Parish—and they all supported the bill. Walsworth, if nothing else, is at least capable of reading a room.
Walsworth, you may remember, was the senator who last year made a complete ass of himself during a committee hearing on science vs. creationism. A teacher was testifying about how her science students were growing cultures in her classroom when Walsworth asked the stupefyingly inane question of whether the cultures could produce humans.
This is your senator, Ouachita Parish. Be proud.
But enough of Walworth’s political pandering and asinine questions; Herb Bassett of nearby Grayson was the real story because his testimony placed charges on the table that heretofore have only been whispered about in the halls of the Claiborne Building.
Where others within the Department of Education (DOE) have alluded privately to data suppression and manipulation of school performance scores that artificially inflated graduation rates, Bassett, a band director who said he was “highly qualified” to teach math, publicly charged White, BESE and DOE of misrepresenting test scores and then covering up the lie by removing the data from the Louisiana Believes website. “This is data suppression,” Bassett said.
He said he was asked by his principal last October to look into his school’s score so that it could be improved in the future. “My subsequent research revealed deceit, distortion, manipulation of scores and data suppression,” he said.
“In mid-December, I sent you a report documenting the gross inflation of the high school performance scores. The Department covered up the inflation by intentionally mislabeling an important column of data in the initial public release of the scores.”
Bassett clarified that statement later, saying he sent his findings to all 144 state legislators and every school district superintendent and that he received an acknowledgement from the legislative assistant to Sen. Conrad Appel (R-Metairie), chairman of the committee, that Appel had received his report.
“The data, the Transition Baselines, showed that the GEE (Graduation Exit Exam)—which was being phased out—and the new EOC (End of Course) tests were mis-calibrated by 7.5 points. That’s half a letter grade,” Bassett said. “Had it been correctly labeled, the inflation would have been obvious—at least to me.”
Meanwhile, he said, BESE was given a different version of the scores with the Transition Baselines correctly labeled. “This shows intent to deceive,” he said.
LouisianaVoice has received information from several sources inside DOE that corroborate Bassett’s claim but because of DOE’s refusal to provide requested records, little has been written about the claimed deception.
He later provided LouisianaVoice with a copy of the report that he sent to legislators and local school superintendents. We will be expanding on that report in subsequent posts.
Bassett further cited what he claimed was manipulation of scores.
“At Mr. White’s first BESE meeting as State Superintendent, the department recommended a graduation index formula change. The change ensured that scores would only go up or stay the same. This raised the average score another four points.
“Thanks to the Transition Baselines, the switching to the EOC did not affect the growth scores but this (the graduation index formula change) did. There are at least 20 schools that would not have earned top gains status without it. That’s over $160,000 in those big checks passed out in PR campaigns,” he said in reference to recent teacher bonuses passed out by DOE as performance awards.
“And the graduation rate data set that I used to compute this has been removed from the Louisiana Believes website (the DOE website). That is data suppression.”
Bassett said he made a five-minute video explaining the problems with the 2011 and 2012 DOE reports on the Value Added Model (VAM), also known as COMPASS, the department’s teacher evaluation program. He said the problems he found “clearly contradict DOE’s current claim that VAM is stable. “This inconvenient data have been suppressed,” he said.
He said LEAP and iLEAP data files that contain the actual numbers of students at each achievement level have been removed. “Only percentage data are given,” he said. “Meanwhile, the new School Assessment System will award bonus points based on the number or percent—whichever is greater—of non-proficient students who surpass their VAM targets. This biased system more generously awards points to schools with over 100 non-proficient students. Without the (actual) numbers, we will not know which schools disproportionately benefit from it.
“Most of the data I used are gone from the new website,” he said.
He said that White is asking “that we believe that VAM has miraculously become stable since the reports by its creators have disappeared.”
Though Bassett did not elaborate on the latter point, LouisianaVoice also has received information that the creators of VAM later became concerned at the direction the program was taking and sent several emails expressing that apprehension to superiors who ignored the messages.
BESE president Chas Roemer (R-Baton Rouge) was called to the witness table and asked about Bassett’s charges. Roemer said he had heard nothing about Bassett’s claims, but that he would “look into it.”
It would difficult to imagine that the president of BESE would know nothing of claims of manipulation of data by White and DOE in light of cheating scandals in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. In Atlanta, former superintendent Beverly Hall and several public school staff members were recently indicted in an alleged scheme to cheat on Georgia state tests, including the erasure of students’ incorrect answers and replacing them with correct answers.
A similar scandal brought down the administration of former Washington, D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee, once the national poster child of school reform.
With the negative publicity those two cheating scandals have received, one would think that the president of a state education board would be aware of any hint of a similar event on his watch.
Roemer was asked to look into Bassett’s allegations and to report back to the committee.
If anyone reading this cares to wager that Roemer will ever report back to the committee members, that the committee will ever follow up on Bassett’s embarrassing charges, or that White or BESE will ever take corrective measures, we know several skeptics who will cover the bet—and give you odds.