Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Garbage in. Garbage out.

The PSSA tests are prepared and scored by a private firm in Minnesota called Data Recognition Corporation.

The actual test booklets arrived in boxes last week all over Pennsylvania. Right now they are being sorted and stacked in every principal's office in every school. Parents have the right to review the tests before their children take them. At least that is the law in Pennsylvania. We just have to sign a confidentiality agreement. I reviewed the ones at my children's school on Monday.

The taxpayers of Pennsylvania pay $30 million every year to Data Recognition Corp (DRC) to develop, print and score these tests every year.

In May of 2009, the Pennslyvania Department of Education (PDE) signed a $200 million contract with DRC to create and administer the Keystone High School Graduation Exams. (Patriot News 5/15/2009, confirmed on 2/28/11 in phone call to reporter at the Patriot News.)

The CEO of DRC, Susan Engeleiter, is a Republican who ran for the US Senate in 1988. Bush Sr. appointed her to head the Small Business Administration, and then she was VP for Government Affairs until 1998, when she goes to DCR. In Dec 2008, she becomes CEO of DRC, and boasts of how she landed a $110 million contract with Ohio for their new high school tests. "When I arrived, we were not particularly profitable," Engeleiter said. "We've aggressively gone after new clients."

Then she donated $6,000 to Democrat Ed Rendell’s reelection campaign. DRC Chairman, Russ Hagen, also a Republican in Minn, donated $16,000 to Rendell. $10,000 of which was donated to Rendell in 2007 (record 257) — AFTER he had already won reelection and had a surplus over $1 million in his reelection fund. Lobbyists for DRC in Harrisburg have served in the administrations of Ridge, Rendell and now Corbett. I spoke with Tim Potts of Democracy Rising PA, a government watchdog group. Mr. Potts told me in a phone call on 3/1/2011 that the term for this kind of deal is "pay-to-play".

The tests are scored by temporary workers with no training in education in what some have described as “sweat shop conditions.”

DRC annually hires 4,000 temporary workers at $11-$13 an hour to score these tests. I called the human resource department of DRC (1-800-835-4697). To be hired as a test scorer one only needs to claim a four year degree, provide a short writing sample, solve two math problems, and attend an orientation/training session. The person from personnel told me that the "training session" was actually more of a recruitment event. DRC is now actively hiring scorers for the PSSAs.

There is a shocking article in City Pages, a Minneapolis weekly. The reporter interviewed people who had worked as scorers. The stories they recount clearly demonstrate how arbitrary and capricious the scoring is. Every parent, teacher, and student needs to read this article at a bare minimum.

The article described haphazard grading by people who have no idea what constitutes good writing. Those who do care are cancelled out by those who don't. For supervisors, pressure is extreme to create a bell curve so that no matter how well schools or students are actually doing, a certain percentage will ALWAYS be on the wrong end of that curve. Supervisors just changes scores to get the desired results so that they will get paid.
[Todd] Farley now understood the reasons why, when he'd been a scorer, his team leaders would tell the room he wanted to start seeing more 3s or 4s or whatever. Supervisors were expected to turn the test scores into a nice bell curve. If his room did not agree at least 80 percent of the time, the tests would be taken back and re-graded, wasting time and money. The supervisor would be put on probation or demoted.

When Farley complained to a fellow supervisor about his problem, she smiled wryly and held up a pencil.

"I've got this eraser, see," she told him. "I help them out."

So Farley simply began changing Harry's scores to agree with his peers'. The practice soon spread well beyond Harry.

"I'd just change a bunch of answers to make it look like my group was doing a great job," Farley says. "I wanted the stupid item to be done, and so did my bosses."

I have spoken now with serveral people who have done this kind of work. They all confirm the details.

To see an actual example of how repetitive, confusing essays are given perfect scores, while clear, concise writing is penalized look at this example of actual tests and how they were scored.

For more information also see Dan Dimaggio's article of his experiences as a test scorer. Or read Making the Grades by Todd Farley

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