The Next Frontier (abyss?): Testing and its Kissin’ Cousin, Cheating

On Friday, at the end of a bang-up Education Writers Association conference on improving teaching quality, at the Carnegie Corporation in New York City, I was approached by a newspaper education editor who asked whether I thought charter school test results were real.  “Are they cheating?” she asked, more pointedly.

The question followed what had been a bruising roundtable discussion between journalists and educators about the value of testing – good or bad?  High-stakes or benchmarking?  Standards-driven or curriculum-driven?  And the newspaper editor’s question was whether the pressure to perform isn’t causing some testing impotence among our educators.  Another reporter, from another state, at this quiet corner conclave, admitted that he had been wondering the same thing.  “Who scores these tests?” he wondered.

The testing/cheating question reminds me of the military-industrial complex conundrum (or the public employees union contradiction):  do we have a phalanx of foxes guarding our hen houses?  To paraphrase President Dwight Eisenhower, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the educational testing complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

Though the cheating scandal du jour is in Atlanta (not to be confused with the education leadership forum Checker is moderating there on Monday), the range and depth of the problem, especially given the improbability of a conspiracy, is troubling.  Lacking a conspiracy, we are left with an explanation of  moral and ethical breakdown of epidemic proportions.  And the question: how is the virus spread?

The New York Times suggests an alternative in a headline this morning:

City to Toughen Audits Amid Concerns That Some Schools Manipulate Data

So, we go from “cheating” to “manipulating.”  The key here, in Sharon Otterman’s story for the Times, is this sentence,

The Regents exams [the statewide tests that seniors must pass to graduate] are graded by teachers within schools, and teachers are not barred from grading their own students.

This would not be such a big deal were it not for the collateral damage implications: test results are, increasingly, being used to judge the teachers of the students and the schools themselves.  We are now asking the inmates to score themselves.

The New York city Regent exam score results suggest the problem, as Otterman reports:

At one Queens high school, the number of students scoring 65 to 69 [65 is the passing grade] last year in the five most popular Regents exams — integrated algebra, global history, biology, English and United States history — was more than five times the number who scored 60 to 64.

We have a huge testing problem in the United States, but we should see it as a symptom not the disease.  Whether at the district, state, or federal level, we should not expect kids to take tests that are not based on specific and known curricular texts.  The current practice of testing kids on vague, black-hole standards, only encourages the kind of shortcuts that teachers are taking: teach to the test (whatever it is), then score it so that you can keep your job!

Something is wrong with this picture.  For better or worse, mostly worse, we continue to think of our education system as a quiz show  – what will the test-writers think of next? – rather than a system to impart knowledge to the next generation.  Our education system is not a game of Jeopardy.  We need to spell out what we expect our children to know, at what age, and then test them – and their teachers! – on how well that knowledge is learned.

–Peter Meyer

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