Thursday, August 4, 2011

Get Rid of the Tests? I'm not Convinced.

Los Angeles CA/ EDITORIAL: Overreacting to Cheating
States should not work so hard to prevent cheating on school tests — even when the cheating is done by teachers — that new problems are created.
Los Angeles Times
August 3, 2011

Students don't generally like tests, and a certain number of them cheat. Yet it's a rare educator who would advocate eliminating tests or not including them in a student's grade. Why, then, does each new scandal involving cheating teachers and administrators lead to a fresh round of calls to eliminate tests or at minimum not make them count for anything?

In the last few months, teachers or administrators in different parts of the country have been caught cheating. Locally, two Crescendo charter schools were shut down in July by the Los Angeles Unified School District, and the four others face possible closure, after students were shown the test questions for upcoming state standardized tests. The scam had allegedly been ordered by the head of Crescendo.

Also in July, an extensive investigation by the state of Georgia found rampant cheating in Atlanta under school leaders who allegedly covered up wrongdoing. Now, Pennsylvania is examining dozens of schools that were flagged in an examination of tests that had suspiciously high numbers of erasures.

Is this sort of thing more common now that tests count for more? Probably. Schools face closure or the loss of staff and in some parts of the country teachers risk critical job evaluations if test scores don't rise enough. Some people who feel threatened will cheat to protect themselves. It's also true that the parameters for what counts as adequate improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act are out of line with reality. In addition, critics rightly point out that states' annual standardized tests are limited measurements of what students have learned; they were never designed to count for half of a teacher's performance evaluation, as several states and school districts are doing.

Yes, those problems must be fixed — No Child Left Behind is long overdue for a rewrite — but not because they might contribute to cheating. Academic dishonesty is unacceptable no matter the cause. States should take reasonable steps to rein in cheating by regularly examining samples of tests each year for high numbers of erasures, a sign that a teacher may have changed wrong answers, and scrutinizing schools whose scores seem a little too good to believe. Any school professional who cheats or sanctions cheating should be fired. Yet states should not work so hard to prevent cheating that they create a whole new set of onerous regulations; in New York, educators complain that it is now so difficult for students to change an answer that many don't bother.
Most teachers aren't cheaters, and they shouldn't be treated as though they are. Nor should standardized tests be eliminated because some educators respond by taking unethical shortcuts. Cheating is wrong; accountability isn't.

My Thoughts: 
It's been a while since I read the book Freakonomics, but I recall an anecdote about how a daycare decided to change it's late pick-up policy by charging an extra $5 or something each time the parent came late.  The original thought was that late pick-ups would go down, because of the new penalty.  In fact, late pick ups increased dramatically, because the penalty was so low and parents no longer had to feel guilty about picking their children up late... because they were paying.

Somehow, standardized tests (and everything else that occurs in the real world, I guess... ) seem to have all sorts of unintentional consequences... just like the daycare's late pick up penalty.  Although the tests have the good intention of illuminating educational gaps that exist across the country (and I think they actually achieve that goal), they have the unintended consequences of incentivizing cheating and teaching to the test.  (Personally, I think our whole school system is designed in a way that encourages teaching.... but that's another thing... ) Does that mean we should stop using standardized tests?  I don't really think so.  I think it means that they should be taken as just one piece of data among many regarding student learning and performance.  I guess that what's missing is any other form of evidence that could be used to compare schools state- and nation-wide.  In our research institutions, there are all sorts of forms of respectable qualitative data.... there's got to be SOMETHING that can compliment standardized test data.  To show how well students problem solve, work together, etc.... all the things that don't show up on a multiple choice or even written answer test. 

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