Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Another Testing Scandal

In a recent post, I wrote about the test-score cheating scandal in Atlanta Georgia and Washington, D.C.   The two scandals have some things in common.  Both involve challenged school systems with nationally recognized former superintendents.    Both received attention nationally as examples of how great leadership in the central office can lead to eye-popping growth in test scores.  In both cases, there are allegations that leadership looked the other way when teachers or parents brought forward troubling information that might have revealed the problem.  As we discuss the implications of these scandals, we can't emphasize enough that the vast majority of educators recoil at the concept that other educators would engage in this conduct.  And, in some cases, these scandals are steps away from being proven:  they rest on statistical evidences suggesting that something is seriously amiss.   In Washington, D.C., as well, some of the schools ensnared in cheating scandals have experienced significant reduction in test scores once new testing regimens were installed to ward off cheating. 

Now we are hearing reports of possible widespread cheating in Pennsylvania.  July 21st New York Times carries a story about a small Philadelphia publication called the Notebook has exposed what appears to be a new round of cheating scandals:

In Pennsylvania, the 2009 statistical analysis that was unearthed by The Notebook has provided many good leads. Chester Community Charter, one of the state’s biggest schools, with 2,700 students, was among those most often flagged for suspicious erasure results. It also was flagged for questionable test scores: in 2009, 65.4 percent of eighth graders were proficient in math, compared with 22 percent the year before......Chester Community Charter School, which was heavily flagged in the 2009 study for “aberrant” erasures and test scores, is operated by Vahan Gureghian. Mr. Gureghian was the largest individual contributor to the governor’s election campaign last fall, giving more than $300,000.....In April the governor visited Mr. Gureghian’s charter, praising it as a model “that needs to be reported to all the people of Pennsylvania,”
A total of 89 schools — 28 in Philadelphia —  both charters and traditional publics had been flagged by the state for, among other things, an improbably high number of erasures, as well as questionable gains on reading and math tests.

What is happening in these schools where cheating is occurring?   Let us all agree that part of what is going on is a manifestation of deep moral failure.   There is no justification, no rationale for distorting the results of student testing.  None.  But it is important as well to consider some of the pressures that are leading to this epidemic of cheating at times endorsed or facilitated by a very small unrepresentative group of teachers and administrators.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing wrote in an Editorial in USA today:
The cheating spike is the predictable fallout from the pervasive misuse of standardized tests in public schools. When test results are all that matter in evaluating students, teachers and schools, educators feel pressured to boost scores by hook or by crook. Just as in other professions, some will cross the ethical line.Cheating is not the only negative consequence from test misuse. Many schools have turned classrooms into drill-and-kill test-prep centers, reduced the difficulty of exams and narrowed curriculum. Some even encouraged students to drop out in order to boost scores. Basing teacher evaluations on students' test scores, as some propose, is guaranteed to ratchet up the pressure and further distort schooling.
According to the National Center, "in the past few months, improper test score manipulation have been uncovered in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando and many smaller communities."  

I disagree with folks who argue we need to get rid of standardized testing. I disagree with the suggestion that we shouldn't use test scores to assist with teacher evaluation.   I disagree that if we drive standardized testing out of our schools that teaching and learning will improve.   Quality testing, and especially quality standardized testing provides teachers, parents and administrators with critical information.

The problem is that we are misusing testing by demanding that all students must reach an arbitrarily selected proficiency score, and the misuse is placing extraordinary pressures on children and their teachers.

The problem lies in the pundit and political class who have decided that all it takes is for someone in the nation's capitol or in state capitols to decide that all children will achieve at an arbitrarily chosen proficiency level, and presto chango, if we humilate their teachers and school districts for failure to reach that level, magically, all students will reach that  level.   I personally witnessed an example of this form of educational malpractice here in Minnesota, when I served on a state committee that set the basic reading standard at a level driven by politicians, despite overwhelming evidence that this level could not be achieved.   Test score objectives are being set by politicians and uninformed advocates who have no clue what they are doing.

The truth of the matter is that we can do better for a lot of kids, but there is also a limit to what teachers can do on their own.   Not every child can reach a level that somebody in Washington pulls out of their you know what.   Children have varying intellectual capabilities.  There are some children who have great difficulty understanding addition and subtraction.   Teaching them second year algebra, as the State of Minnesota demands that we do, is not likely to succeed.   There are some children who arrive at school alienated and unmotivated.  There are some children who arrive at school with physical or mental disablities that drastically limit their ability to learn.  There are some who refuse to do their homework or cooperate with their teacher.  Yes, we can do better with some of these children, and we should. We can use test scores to provide valuable information on how students and their teachers are progressing, and we should.    But what we are doing instead is establishing by fiat proficiency goals for all children, whether they can meet those goals or not.

Everyone who actually teaches children knows that the proficiency standards that are being utilized across the country are too low for some children -- not demanding enough-- and too high for others.  Children are not widgets; they aren't interchangeable parts on an assembly line.    Some work harder than others.  Some get more parental support than others.  Some have high intellects, and some have low.  Some just can't stand math, darn it.  We don't need to get rid of testing:  we need to stop misusing testing to humiliate teachers and students.  We need to stop overstating how much and how fast we can bring about change.    And, certainly, we need to take steps to assure testing integrity.

While there are many negative impacts of the distortion of test results, one of them is that the cheating schools have been used by pundits and politicians as proof that radical transformation can occur almost overnight simply by adopting a superintendent's visionary plans.  In today's Washington Post there is an article reporting on the test scores in some of these turnaround schools a year after their testing practices were examined. 

Reading and math scores on citywide tests fell this year in several D.C. schools that came under scrutiny for potential security breaches in the previous year’s exams, according to data made public Tuesday. In a few cases, the plunge recorded through the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System was especially stark.  At Noyes Education Campus in Northeast Washington, the pass rate in reading dropped more than 25 percentage points, to 32 percent, and the pass rate in math dropped more than 20 points, to 28 percent. Noyes was one of three schools for which some 2010 scores were invalidated in May after an investigation found evidence or strong suspicion of cheating.

Links in this post.  I encourage you to look at these sources.
My recent post on Atlanta
the Notebook
Editorial in USA today
National Center for Fair and Open Testing 
Washington Post  article
Los Angeles Charters Accused of Cheating Closed 
Connecticut Cheating Investigation

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