Carpe Diem: The dog ate my test scores

by David Safier

Students are notorious for having an excuse for missing assignments (“The dog ate my homework”) and low test scores (“I left my book on the bus”). And when they’re accused of cheating, there’s always a logical explanation that leaves the student blameless. But shouldn’t we expect more from the founder of Carpe Diem, the “blended learning” charter school in Yuma that’s praised to the sky by conservative “education reform” advocates and is starting to franchise into other states?

Carpe Diem students spend a great deal of the school day in the computer lab using online curriculum instead of spending all their time in the classroom — hence the term “blended learning.” The student-to-teacher ratio is about 50-to-1, twice the usual ratio. In Yuma, four teachers serve the school’s 200+ students. The “proof” of the success of the blended learning model is the students’ AIMS scores, which shot up from 2007 to 2009.

The problem is, the school’s scores have slipped significantly since their 2009 high. Here’s the graph of Carpe Diem’s AIMS scores for 2010, 2011 and 2012 from the AZ Dept of Ed website:

Why the drop? It’s probable the earlier scores were inflated by teacher or administrative-level cheating. From the Republic’s Anne Ryman in 2011:

In spring 2010, the company that administers the AIMS test, Pearson Education, flagged Carpe Diem’s sophomore AIMS reading test for having a higher-than-average number of erasure marks. Flagging means the state gets an alert. Pearson’s report said a group of 27 Carpe Diem students who took the AIMS reading test had a total number of wrong-to-right erasure marks seven times as high as the state average.


When asked about the drop in test scores, school founder and Exec Director Rick Ogston had an excuse:

Ogston said the dip happened when the school switched to a different reading curriculum and an unusually large influx of new students who were struggling in the subject, he said.

Why Ogston chose to get rid of a reading curriculum that yielded such spectacular results is a mystery. Equally mysterious is the fact that the writing scores, which shouldn’t have been affected by the reading curriculum, are the ones that dropped the farthest.

In an excellent article by Reuter’s Stephanie Simon a few days ago (more on the article’s takedown of Jeb Bush’s education credentials in another post), Ogston added another reason why the scores dropped: the sudden death of the principal. One would think the blended learning model would be rigorous enough and the teachers well enough trained, the school could withstand a change of leadership, but Ogston apparently doesn’t believe in his model that strongly.

The new online curriculum that apparently caused scores to drop, E2020, is selling well these days, in good part because of its supposed success at Carpe Diem. And a new school opened in Indiana this year also based on the questionable success of the Yuma school’s model, with more to follow.

What about the allegations of cheating which would invalidate the school’s success story? Ogston said in the Republic article,

“I’m not alarmed at all (by the erasures),” he said, adding there was no cheating. “We proctor (the test). We proctor the proctor. And so we guard, and we have a high level of integrity.”

Ed Supe John Huppenthal, who sings the praises of Carpe Diem, isn’t concerned about the possibility of cheating either. He didn’t investigate the matter and hasn’t set up any test monitoring to assure the tests reflect the students’ work, though based on the slipping scores, it looks like the allegations of cheating have scared the school’s teachers and administrators straight. The recent unexceptional scores are likely a more honest reflection of the blended learning approach.

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