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The PAWS dip

Aug 19, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

How long will it take for someone to blame it on Cindy Hill?

By now, anyone who still cares has heard that scores in the Proficiency Assessment for Wyoming Students -- PAWS -- this year were down slightly from last year.

Predicting what might happen to them next year would be folly, but here is a prediction far more likely to come true: The decline in scores this time around will be blamed on Cindy Hill.

The state superintendent, embroiled in seemingly the umpteenth investigation of alleged but still-unsubstantiated wrongdoing by the Wyoming Legislature, is used to being blamed for things by now. Don't be surprised if the West Nile virus outbreak this summer is traced back to her in the eyes of some legislators. The high price of gasoline this summer probably has something to do with Hill, doesn't it? And wasn't she seen with a lighter near the ignition point of that big forest fire north of Dubois?

Those last three might be hard to prove, but, then again, so have all the other things leveled against Hill by the inquisitors who seem bent on her impeachment. The PAWS test score decline probably will be an easy target for the blame seekers.

Before piling on another layer of accusations against Hill -- or anyone else who might be a scapegoat for the PAWS results -- those who would do the accusing ought to remember the checkered history of PAWS in Wyoming. If anything, the controversial and unreliable standardized test probably had its best period ever during Hill's first years in office.

She had made repairing PAWS a focal point of her campaign in 2010, and she largely lived up to those promises. For the first time, the test did not make headlines for its assorted difficulties and instead showed promise that it might truly become a useful and reliable tool in assessing student performance in the state.

Nor should Wyoming forget that test scores in general have improved during her term. That will make nailing blame for the slight downturn in PAWS results this year harder to do -- assuming Wyoming citizens are still paying attention to PAWS after all its troubles.

That is a big assumption given the test's miserable track record virtually since its inception. But that does not mean that those out to remove Hill from office won't try to tar her with the broad PAWS brush. In the Cindy Hill sweepstakes, anything goes.

Wyoming citizens ought to be grateful for the level heads around the state, including new Riverton assistant superintendent of schools Joanne Flanagan, who have stayed out of the political drama in Cheyenne and instead recommended realistic interpretation and analysis of what is going on these days with PAWS. In truth, the test enjoyed another trouble-free year technically speaking, so that the actual test results can be the center of attention, as they always should have been.

Considering that Wyoming has had four superintendents of public instruction since 2002, and just about as many emerging "experts" in education at the Wyoming Legislature, finding a believable way to assess student performance will be difficult. Lost amid the din of political fistfighting over Cindy Hill has been something she has said from the beginning: Wyoming ought to agree on a general education policy, and then give it more than a year or two to succeed. Chances are Jim McBride, Trent Blankenship and Judy Catchpole, Hill's predecessors in office, would say the same thing.

But because politics won't permit that to happen, it will become easier this time around to blame an individual for a single year's downturn in test scores, blame most likely assessed by the same people who so far have refused to give Hill any credit for the improvement in academic performance over the past couple of years.

Can Hill's prosecutors truly have it both ways? It would be a positive step for Wyoming if they didn't try, but the urge may prove irresistible.

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