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Jason Stanford: A Wall Street crash in public schools?

Just as AAA ratings on mortgage-backed securities led to Wall Street’s 2008 disaster, a rash of accountability scandals might be precursors to a similar public school crash. After years of promises that test-driven accountability would yield miracles, scandals with school ratings are popping up all over the country. Unless we hold reformers as accountable as they hold students, these scandals could bring down our public school system the same way Wall Street almost innovated our economy back into the Stone Age.

In New York, a new rating system resulted in 70 percent of city students failing the new tests, earning the kind of tabloid headlines usually reserved for a politician’s sex scandal or a natural disaster. "Rotten to the score," blared the New York Daily News. Fans of corporate education reform hail this as the tough love needed to force even tougher changes to the public school system despite the fact that privately owned charter schools fared just as badly.

But Diane Ravitch, author of the upcoming "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools," calls the new scores "invalid" because officials set the kids up to fail.

"The state didn’t just ‘raise the bar.’ It aligned its passing mark to a completely inappropriate model," Ravitch wrote. She pointed out that getting a "proficient" rating on the new test was the equivalent of acing the National Assessment for Educational Progress, something only 3 to 8 percent of students achieve nationally.

A completely different school rating scandal recently cost Tony Bennett his job as Florida’s top school official because of something he did on his last job as Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. Bennett imposed an A-F rating system on schools, a favorite of school reformers because it seems like it makes sense, until you think about it.

The problem arose when a charter school owned by one of the top donors to Republican Gov. Mike Pence tanked on the algebra test and earned a C rating. Bennett changed the formula to turn the donor’s junk bond charter school into a AAA-rated example of education reform, showing how vulnerable school ratings are to political interference. An investigative story by AP reporter Tom LoBianco revealed the scam, forcing Bennett’s resignation.

The shock is that anyone was held accountable. Ratings systems can cause schools to close and students to be held back, but until Bennett no politician was ever held accountable for fudging the numbers. In Louisiana, for example, Education Superintendent John White inflated school ratings by 7.5 percent — or half a letter grade — by changing that state’s accountability formula. Passing rates more than doubled, and White claimed success.

When called before a state legislative committee, White denied that changing the formula had created illusory success. The fault lay with the previous formula.

And Michelle Rhee, the celebrated "No Excuses" superintendent of the Washington, D.C. schools, is still considered a national leader on education reform despite evidence that D.C. scores rose on her watch because of organized cheating. Her success is a fraud that no one seems to want to expose.

"It’s a system that we all grew up with. We all got grades A, B, C, D, F in school, and the public will understand, too," said Michael Williams, the education chief in Texas, the latest state to adopt the A-F school ratings. If scandals in Indiana, Louisiana, New York, and Washington, DC — and Wall Street — are any guide, the public won’t know what hit ’em. We cannot expect to run our schools the same way we run our speculation industry and expect anything other than an education recession.

Jason Stanford is a columnist, author and Democratic political consultant.