Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Cheating to Pass TAKS Not Doing Kids a Favor

Wednesday, January 12, 2005
Dallas Morning News
by J. Ragland

It doesn't get any worse than this: Texas schools helping kids to cheat on
state-mandated exams so principals and teachers can get a pat on the back.

Lord, what in the world have we done to our kids?

And how about our teachers, who are under so much pressure to raise scores
on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test that too many of them
are becoming more obsessed with practice drills rather than teaching?

Folks, we've got a certified mess on our hands.

It won't get any better until we demand that the Texas Education Agency and
the state Legislature get at the root cause of the cheating ˆ the increasing
emphasis on the TAKS as the yardstick by which to measure academic

The objective of the tests may not be bad, but we can't be pleased with what
they've wrought.

A little background: An investigation by The Dallas Morning News found
suspect test scores at nearly 400 Texas schools. In response, Shirley
Neeley, the state's education commissioner, announced Monday that the Texas
Education Agency will hire an outside testing expert to improve procedures
for preventing and catching cheating on the TAKS test.

Deserving answers

Frankly, I agree with the state lawmakers who suggested that the TEA has
been too lax in this area. I'll let them fight on that point. But ˆ and I
say this without taking a close look at Dr. Neeley's budget ˆ I'm of the
mind that the Legislature should give Dr. Neeley however much money she
needs to investigate cheating.

And the Legislature should do that as soon as possible, because parents
across the state deserve to know that their kids aren't being cheated out of
their futures.

Several school districts, including Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, El Paso and
Amarillo, have launched internal cheating investigations.

Excuse me for not jumping up and down at that news.

I mean, I applaud those districts for taking some action. However, I don't
know about you, but I'd be much more confident if some objective, outside
eyes were looking into those districts. Experience tells me that it's dang
near impossible for institutions to admit they've been screwing up and to
fall on their own swords.

Positive signs

Other steps all are moves in the right direction: the Dallas and Houston
school districts agreeing to send monitors into classrooms on test day;
Houston creating an inspector general office to investigate cheating
allegations; and the Dallas, Houston, Austin and Fort Worth districts saying
they will do annual analyses to detect possible cheaters.


I say finally because we all should have seen this Frankenstein monster
coming to life as we ˆ namely, our pointed-head state leaders ˆ put more and
more stock into TAKS results and fewer resources into the classrooms.

This cheating issue is a difficult one for me to swallow because, if you
know me well, you know how much I value good teachers. If I had to single
out one profession to personify everyday heroism, it would be teaching. Day
in and day out, we trust them to help build the sort of platform on which
our kids can stand up strong, straight and able to compete.

So anyone who undermines that trust by cheating to make themselves or their
bosses look good not only harms his or her profession but also puts the kids
in a downward spiral.

Let's be clear. It's not like the majority of teachers or the majority of
principals and superintendents have bowed to the TAKS pressure. That's the
silver lining in this story. But we can't ignore the dark cloud looming
above us.

Listen to what Aimee Bolender, president of Alliance/AFT, has to say about
the cheating scandal.

"First of all," she told me yesterday, "it is horrible that there would be
cheating going on, and it is absolutely cheating, if you will, the students
involved. That's not what I believe the majority of teachers are all about.

"But," Ms. Bolender said, "I also know that as the statewide testing has
become more and more significant, it has almost eclipsed whether students
are learning as long as the test scores are up."

Teaching to the test

If you need proof, just ask teachers how much time they must spend now
drilling kids for the tests. How can you be passionate about teaching when
you're forced to do that? And how much further damage might we cause if we
tie teachers' evaluations to students' performance on these tests?

"The teachers have never wanted to go into that direction," Ms. Bolender
said. "We have sort of created this unusual climate or culture where testing
is more important than what the child is learning."

That may be the worse kind of cheating ˆ the sort that offers your kid an
encouraging pat on the back with one hand while emptying his pocket with the


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