My madcap adventures in Germany during my year as a Fulbright Scholar.

14 May 2007


There's a good article in the San Francisco Chronicle today about teachers "cheating" on standardized tests.

It's an interesting read, I don't care for the hyperbolic headline ("The Teachers Who Cheat"); nor do I care for the sneering attitude of the reports that occasionally crops up, like here: "As a result, Challenger received no school ranking on the state's Academic Performance Index in 2006. Instead, there is a note by Challenger's name saying that an 'adult irregularity in testing procedure' occurred, and the school wasn't ranked. ('Cheating' is a word educators never use.)"

Let's not forget that teachers are educated people; they know what they're talking about and what they're saying. Choosing "adult irregularity" instead of "cheating" is not semantic hairsplitting. Let's look at what school districts consider cheating:

"State regulations let teachers give approved practice tests, show students test-taking strategies, and teach subjects that might be on the test.

But violations include tailoring instruction to the test, practicing on exams from past years or on alternate forms of the test, looking at the test in advance and teaching its content, and emphasizing score improvement over academic achievement."

Practicing on old exams and using alternate forms of the test seem like two perfectly reasonable test-prep strategies to me, and calling a teacher a cheater for "emphasizing score improvement over academic achievement" is absurd. Emphasizing score improvement over academic achievement is caused by high stakes testing. Because in the high stakes, standardized testing world score improvement ismore important than academic achievement, it is inevitable that some (most?)teachers will adopt the same attitude, however unwillingly. It's not fair to punish a teacher because a flawed system is working exactly how it was designed to work.

Let's take a closer look at the examples of teacher "cheating" the article cites. Some are fairly clear-cut:
  • "'It is my conclusion that student answers were erased and changed from wrong to right in a centralized location in a fraudulent effort to improve scores,' said director Isaac Haqq. 'I take full responsibility for the lack of monitoring.'"

  • "'She pointed at questions like they were wrong,' one boy told investigators."
Others are not so obvious.

  • "At Challenger, the practice test 'was clearly specifically formulated or intended to prepare his 169 pupils for the standards-based achievement tests,' district officials told the state."

    Am I missing something? Aren't practice tests supposed to prepare your students for the exam?

  • "In Bakersfield, seventh-grade teachers at Actis Junior High "tweaked their planned lessons to include narrative writing" after the principal told them what would be on the 2005 writing test, said an incident report. One of the teachers abruptly stopped teaching poetry and had the class rewrite the classic verse "Casey at the Bat" as a fictional narrative."

    That sounds like a pretty good lesson plan to me, since it teaches about not only narrative writing, but poetry as well, by showing students that it is not content along that gives poetry its meaning.

  • "In her investigation, Superintendent Michele Lawrence found that during the 2005 test, a third-grade teacher walked around the room and, 'through body language, nodding or pointing, told students to check a specific answer or "look at that again," ' according to Lawrence's report. One boy said the teacher helped him with problems he didn't understand, 'like 35 divided by 5. She would explain that you should put it in groups.' "

Okay, the first half of the last example seems obvious: telling or indicating to a student that they have a wrong answer is not appropriate, but the second half is different: "One boy said the teacher helped him with problems he didn't understand, 'like 35 divided by 5. She would explain that you should put it in groups.'" Please, let's not punish teachers for teaching their students. That teacher did not cheat in any way; she explained to her student what division was! As long as he actually did the "put[ting] it into groups" himself, I don't see anything wrong.

(Admittedly, that might not be the whole story. Maybe she pointed out the wrong answer before she gave her hint, but the article doesn't say so. Based on what is said, though, nothing inappropriate happened. If that was the best example the reporter could find, I'm not too worried.)

If that teacher's actions are truly against the rules, I think we have bigger problems. It is shocking to me that children are being given high stakes tests where they are not even allowed to ask for help. I can understand that I'm not allowed to ask the proctor for help on the SAT, ACT or GRE, but in no way do I believe those rules should apply to pre-teens.

  • "Teachers in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda, Redwood City, San Jose and elsewhere simply helped students answer the questions."

If "helping students" is now considered cheating, then I certainly hope we have an educational workforce full of nothing but cheaters.

And let's not forget why the very small number of teachers who are breaking the rules do so: "Incentives to bend the rules are strong in the No Child Left Behind era, when persistently low scores can shut down a school, trigger a takeover or force teacher transfers, experts say." The "cheating" is just a symptom of a much bigger problem.


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