Sunday, August 10, 2014

Wrong Answer: In an era of high-stakes testing, a struggling school made a shocking choice

This is a gripping, if poignant, narrative about a testing cheating scandal at Parks Middle School in Atlanta on the  Criterion–Referenced Competency Test in The New Yorker by Rachel Aviv.   I encourage the reader to suspend their judgment until they read this narrative in its entirety.  Among other things, the article speaks to how our educational system is sadly more about form than substance.  Here's some quotes to guide the reader through this rather lengthy piece.

The reform model, which drew on an accountability system used in Texas in the nineties, ignored less quantifiable signs of intellectual development.
At happy –hour drinks, he and other teachers complained that the legislators who wrote No Child Left Behind must never have been near a school like Parks. He felt as if he and his colleagues were part of a nationwide "biological experiment" in which the variables – – the fact that so many children were hungry and transient, and witnessing violence – – hadn't been controlled. David Berliner, the former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University, told me that, with the passage of the law, teachers were asked to compensate for factors outside their control. He said, "the people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.
 According to Waller, the district became increasingly  "Corporate," with every school focussed on the "bottom line." He wrote teachers' targets in marker on the floor of the entry way to their classrooms, in view of the students. He instructed the teachers, "I need those numbers," and, "you need to teach to the test. Do what you've got to do."

 But Lewis began to worry that mathematics had assumed an unhealthy role in the district. "Data" and "accountability" had become almost magic words: if administrators repeated them enough, it seemed they believed that scores should rise, even if there had been significant enhancements in instruction.
There have been accounts of widespread cheating in dozens of cities, including Philadelphia, Toledo, El Paso, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, and St. Louis. According to a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office, forty states detected instances of cheating by educators in the previous two years but Atlanta is one of the few districts in which educators have been subpoenaed. "It's hard to find anyone in the system wants to look under the rock and see what's there,"  Jennifer Jennings, a sociology professor at N.Y.U. who studies standardized tests, said. She noted that even in Texas, whose reform model inspired No Child Left Behind, scholars doubted whether students had progresses rapidly is that these suggested – – administrators exempted low–performing students from taking the test and underreported dropouts. James worries that one consequence of cheating and other forms of gaming the system is that it interferes with the "policy–feedback loop," the conclusions we draw about student learning and the narratives we tell about reform given what happened in Texas, she said, the cheating in Atlanta "should have been very easy to anticipate."
 After more than 2000 interviews, the investigators concluded that forty–four schools had cheated and that a "culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation has infested the district, allowing cheating–at all levels–to go unchecked for years."

Unlike any other city where testing scandals occurred, charges were ultimately brought against the principal, superintendent, and 33 administrators and teachers, nearly all of them African American. A statute used to apprehend criminal organizations like the Mafia, namely, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, was used against them.

I appreciate the well-crafted, counter–narrative the author develops in this story. This wasn't a case where teachers believed in the testing system—and not even an attempt to cheat for $5000.00 bonuses. It was the opposite.  Their decision to cheat was an act of civil disobedience.

Clearly, this is a modern-day parable of how our standardized testing systems induce a tremendous amount of fear that then leads to gaming the system.  Unfortunately, genuine concerns about the testing system did not translate into a grassroots policy agenda that could have made the system itself criminally derelict in its ostensible duty to improve education.

What is also tragic here is that under Superintendent Hall (who God bless her soul is now bedridden and undergoing treatment for cancer), it does appear that real improvement in Atlanta schools had occurred as evidenced by indicators like graduation rates and progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test. 

Solutions?  First of all, we need advocacy against this system from every corner and every quarter.  The business community, especially our business chambers that often support these tests, need to know just how much this system works against their interests of developing youth with advanced, technical skills, and knowledge, together with our 21st Century need to cultivate students that are not only creative and self-directed, but who are also divergent in their thinking (see this classic RSA that paints a cogent picture of this).  Our Children need the cultural and linguistic skills and sensitivities to navigate an increasingly complex and global society.

We need to significantly reduce the numbers of standardized tests that students have to take, in general, alongside a moratorium on the uses of these tests in a high–stakes manner.  This refers to consequences to children (i.e., to retain in grade, promote, graduate, or not allow to graduate) and schools (i.e., to rate schools as failures or successes and thereby perversely incentivize cheating and gaming).

And we need to replace this system with an authentic assessment system that empowers teachers and principals to refocus on actual learning in their classrooms based on real-world problems that realistically prepare students for productive, civically engaged lives as members of moral communities. An excellent direction for us to go in education is to modeled by the New York Performance Standards Consortium which represents 28 schools across New York state—most of them in New York City. Moreover, we need to abide across the board to the principles outlined by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (or FairTest).

I am not at all saying that we should eliminate standardized tests, but rather that they should occupy a limited role in assessing either a child's learning or the learning that goes on in schools and districts.

Regarding school and district quality, we also do not need to test every single student in every class in every school.  To know the health of the body, we do not need a blood transfusion.  Rather we only need a sample.  Our state testing systems could be modeled on the NAEP test, for example, that consists of sample, rather than census, testing.  The Intercultural Development Research Center has been making this argument in Texas for some time now.  It is incumbent upon us now to act.

We also need to simply reject the untenable argument that we will test our way to equity.  If tests were the solution, this would have happened by now.  This scandal exposes just how much of a waste of time, talent, money, and effort this system is.  We as a community have to reclaim the democratic purposes of public schooling, beginning with our school boards and state boards of education.

We can do better.  Much better.

© Angela Valenzuela

Wrong Answer

In an era of high-stakes testing, a struggling school made a shocking choice.

Annals of Education 


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