Edward Udel: High stakes tests invite shenanigans
The toll is now 37 states. In each, there have been allegations of cheating on high stakes tests. These allegations are proliferating faster than medical marijuana farms. Cheating is one desperate by-product of the mandate that public school teachers must convert straw into gold and that high stakes assessments and data driven instruction must enable this transformation.
However, some straw is highly resistant and refuses to become gold. In such cases, some educators have found ways to make straw look like gold. Cheating is one way to do this but other less offensive and more subtle methods are all the rage. Emerging advancements in some areas camouflage growing weaknesses in others.
What are these advancements? Certainly one is the improvement of high stakes test scores. Some accomplish this with almost singular focus on test preparation, requiring students to practice different types of test items over and over, relying upon student performance data to identify and address areas of weakness. This often consumes many instructional hours each week and in some cases, drives important courses off the map. This approach works in much the same way that practice and specialized instruction enhances SAT scores. The difference, of course, is that SAT practice has not replaced curricula.
Once a school system develops a positive test score trend, it can use that trend as cover. Colorful graphs and power point presentations illustrating better test scores help to seal the deal and convince the public that the process is working. However, this success, whether it is obtained by outright cheating or hours and hours of ill-advised test preparation, comes with a price.
In some states where the multiple choice test reigns supreme, test answers have been altered, students have been assigned to take the tests for their less capable peers and in some classrooms, teachers have even provided the correct answers. In Atlanta, some administrators and teachers are accused of profiting financially. Their former superintendent, recently honored as Superintendent of the Year, allegedly capitalized on this statistical sleight of hand to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonus money, casting doubt upon the wisdom of retrofitting business models of accountability and financial reward and punishment on public education.
The high stakes testing game continues to produce deficits. Some states that rely exclusively on test scores as a benchmark of quality have seen their drop-out rates actually climb as schools improve their test scores by encouraging weaker students to leave.
Other states such Massachusetts counter this possibility by monitoring drop-out rates, suspensions and attendance. However, applying multiple benchmarks also has a down side. Schools that have had a large number of drop-outs have found ways to reduce their number by simply watering down expectations. Some actually restrict teachers from distributing failing grades. Of course, this keeps likely drop-outs in school but their diplomas have little or no value.
Front-loading test practice in elementary and middle school and then weakening expectations for juniors and seniors does not produce more capable graduates. Ironically, better test scores provide the architects of this process to claim more rigor. Providing diplomas to unproductive students is an act of cruelty imposed upon them and a discouraging reminder that schools' report cards have become a greater concern than the students. With high school diplomas in hand despite woeful records, too many graduates are unprepared to succeed in school or on the job. Even a military career is unattainable as many graduates are unable to pass the entrance exams.
There are far better approaches available to improve schools and students. Every child should have access to pre-school education and every parent should be equipped with the basic knowledge of how to enhance their children's pre-school learning experience at home. We now know that an early start is critical!
Secondly, authentic and effective monitoring, mentoring and evaluation of teachers by experts in each subject area will improve results. Portfolios of children's work should be examined by evaluators and specific benchmarks for the quantity and quality of writing assignments should be required and checked. A K-12 writing program should be monitored by experts who can assess the quality of teachers' comments and offer suggestions to improve instruction. These steps will produce more lateral and linear equivalency supporting the goal of providing each and every student with the same opportunities to learn and grow.
Taking steps to make sure that the basic building blocks of a good school system are solidly in place certainly beats a process rife with cheating and dependent upon the diminution of academic standards. Rather than investing in a full-scale effort to make straw look like gold we would be wise to consider the poet's cautionary line "All that glitters is not gold."
There are at least 37 well populated reasons to change our direction. We can do much better than a coercive bureaucratic system that invites cheating and enables bad decisions.
A long-time teacher in the Pittsfield school system and former chairman of the English Department at Taconic High School, Edward Udel is a frequent Eagle contributor.
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