The Achievement Racket

An inspirational sign greeting students and teachers at a struggling Massachusetts elementary school.

Here’s a dirty little secret for you. You know that word ‘achievement’? While it used to have something to do with heroic deeds and accomplishments, today achievement refers to one thing and one thing only: test scores. And schools across the country are taking increasingly desperate measures to raise them. Today we visit some schools where students are under virtual test-prep lockdown, practicing the art of test taking week after week in hopes that their scores on the looming high-stakes test will increase enough to prevent state intervention or worse, hand-off of the school to a private operator. In this twisted tale of testing run amuck, there is one clear winner: the consulting group that earns as much as $25,000 per school to help boost “achievement.”

The first stop on today’s achievement racket tour is a public elementary school in an unnamed Massachusetts city. Because students here, many of whom are still learning English, have failed to increase their “achievement” over the past three years, the school will likely be taken over by an “outside operator” unless enough students learn to color in the correct bubbles before they take the high stakes test this spring. Enter the Achievement Network or ANet, consultants so committed to “helping all students achieve academic excellence” that achievement rises out of their very logo. Such excellence is derived through the dozens of practice tests that ANet experts administer throughout the school year. I’ll let a teacher at the school describe the process for you:

Every student will take a total of 12 of these tests this year. We put an entire grade into lockdown mode, administer the test, and send the bubble sheets off to be corrected. They come back with lots of statistics and forms to fill out. We spend hours poring over the results, breaking kids into daily half-hour pull-out groups, filling out ANet forms handed to us that have questions like, “Today I will _ to make sure my students understand the material,” or “Today I will reteach _ to make sure my students understand the concept of_.”

While achievement boosting in the name of academic excellence may not be fun, the pay-off is huge—at least for ANet, which raked in $9 million last year, including $6 million in school fees. In cities including Washington DC, Boston, Atlanta and Memphis, ANet’s public and charter schools are organized into networks which share ideas and “goad each other to improve.” Here’s how another teacher describes her participation in an ANet network.

The best part is the website where you get to go to to see how your students compare to a bunch of other students in charter schools across Massachusetts. Of course you can also compare yourself to other teachers right in your own school. That helps with all types of community-building.

To be fair, plenty of other teachers said that ANet was actually helping them to bond—over how useless, not to mention expensive, they think ANet is. You see, the practice tests that ANet consultants help to administer to students up to 12 times a year are really just standardized tests that are cobbled together from a mishmash of state tests from around the country. As a result, the questions often have little to do with the state-specific high-stakes tests that students are cramming for. Teachers also say that they regularly encounter questions that are poorly written and conceptualized, like this one that was provided by a Washington DC math teacher:

Zarah needs to find the net total of the numbers below. She wants to do it as efficiently as possible.

8.3 + 3 1/5 – 1/10 + 4 2/10 – 3/5 + 17.1

How could Zarah best re-organize the numbers to simplify her job?

A. -(-8.3 – 3 1/5 + 1/10 – 4 2/10 + 3/5 – 17.1)

B. (8.3 + 17.1 + 4 2/10 + 3 1/5) – (3/5 + 1/10)

C. (3 1/5 – 1/10 + 17.1) + (8.3 – 3/5)

D. (8.3 + 3 1/5 + 4 2/10 + 17.1) + (-1/10 – 3/5)

The correct answer, drum roll please, is $5 million dollars. That’s the amount of the Investing in Innovation grant that ANet received in 2010 from the US Department of Education, in part to fund a large randomized study of its impact. But even before we see the results of that study, I’d say that the impact of obsessive standardized testing is increasingly clear, and not at all random. When high stakes testing drive virtually aspect of our education system, somebody is going to get paid.

Send answers to the above question and achievement-boosting suggestions to

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  1. I just looked to see who was on the board of directors at The Achievement Network… none other than Mike Contompasis, he of Boston Latin School fame. Do you think Mike would have allowed an outfit like The Achievement Network anywhere near BLS? Think BLS parents would have allowed them through the door? Not for a red hot minute.

    But they sure pay good when you’re in semi-retirement…

  2. God what an awful question. The first thing to do with that problem is to turn everything into decimals; then it’s easy to solve. It has nothing to do with re-organizing.

  3. That Urgent News! poster greeting elementary kids and parents might just be the most depressing example I have ever seen of what public education has become.

    I think the name of the school where the poster was displayed should be made public.

    Rich kids go to private schools and escape the testing; poor kids suffer so testing corps can rake in the cash at the poor kids’ expense. Shame, shame, shame on the person who stood with the testing corporations and made that poster. Who does that to little children?

  4. Hey there, I gave you a shout-out on my own blog. You may have heard of the Seattle MAP, and teachers who refuse to give it this year. I wrote about it here:

    That “math” question above pretty much demonstrates why these tests are so terrible and useless. And besides the costs of ANet and things like that, look how much time these kids were pulled out of class!

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