There’s Cheating, and Then There’s CHEATING

Good heavens, school teachers and principals are cheating–maybe 1% to 3% of them, nationally;  4% to 5% in Chicago.  So reports Trip Gabriel, in a front page New York Times story, “Pressed to Show Progress, Educators Tamper with Test Scores” (April 11, 2010).  For example:  a principal in Massachusetts told teachers to look over the shoulders of test-taking kids and point out wrong answers to them.  A principal in Virginia “pressured” teachers of struggling special ed students to put the correct answers to state reading test questions on an overhead projector.  In Georgia, the state board of education launched an investigation of 191 schools whose students’ test sheets showed evidence of tampering:  someone had erased wrong answers and penciled in correct answers.  In Houston, an assistant principal and three teachers resigned after a finding that they had peeked at the state science test, written a study guide based on correct answers to test questions, and distributed the guide to students.

The Times article moralizes:  “Of all the forms of academic cheating, none may be as startling” as messing with standardized test sheets and results.  Less startling, maybe, if you know that many states are now rating teachers and principals, rewarding them (e.g., a $2850 bonus for the cheating Houston teachers), tenuring them, holding them back, or firing them, on the basis of their students’ test scores. As Robert Schaeffer of FairTest said to the Times reporter, such pressures “end up pushing more and more [teachers] over the line.”  What line?  The one “between accepted ways of boosting scores, like using old tests to prep students, and actual cheating,” the Times explains.  Good analysis.
I remember sadly a presentation our district superintendent arranged for the school board on which I served for seven years, in Massachusetts, when high stakes testing kicked in there.  A principal and a teacher described how they were teaching students the logic of standardized tests, techniques for bettering the odds of correct answers, what kinds of questions were likely to appear on the tests, and so on.  They were doing the best job they could for their students, not just for their own careers.  So was the superintendent, in spite of his disgust at NCLB, which he thought preposterous and hurtful, even as he bowed to its intimidations.  His efforts and those of the presenters were well on the legal side of that “line.”  Education got worse in our district.
But analysis should go deeper:  the regime of high stakes testing was from the outset guaranteed to cheat students, and make cheaters of administrators and teachers.  Diane Ravitch–I never thought I’d be citing her as an authority–puts it well:  “By demanding that all students reach proficiency by 2014, NCLB incentivized states, districts, and schools  to cheat and game the system.  That is the direct outcome of high stakes testing” (“Why I Changed My Mind,” The Nation, June 14, 2010).  She elaborates:  (1) some states set initial standards very low, so they can now “claim dramatic improvement.”  (2) “Many schools suspend instruction for months before the state tests, in hopes of boosting scores.  Students are drilled on how to answer the precise types of questions that are likely to appear” on the tests.  So students “learn test-taking techniques rather than the subject tested. . . . ”  (3)  “States and districts manipulate the scoring of tests to produce inflated gains.”  (4)  And, as she goes on to say, “quality of education” suffers:  “As more time is devoted to reading and math, and as teachers are warned that the scores in these subjects will determine the fate of their school, everything other than reading and math gets less time.  This is what doesn’t count:  history, literature, geography, science, the arts, foreign languages, physical education, civics, etc.”  We lefties should heartily thank this former assistant secretary of education from the G. H. W. Bush administration for her honesty,* and yell out with her that NCLB is a political scam, an ideological smokescreen, and an enemy of intelligent citizenship.  That it provokes a few teachers and principals to commit fraud is entirely predicable, and the least of its crimes.
–Richard Ohmann
*Her new book is “The Death and Life of the Great American School System:  How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education” (Basic Books).

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