Editorial: Standardized Testing, Cheating, and Cognitive Dissonance

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Opponents of  the Elementary and Secondary Education Act(No Child Left Behind/Common Core/other Educational Programs based on politics and math rather than reality) argue that unrealistic expectations are placed on educators and their power to exercise any professional judgement is eliminated leaving them to instead teach to the test and, as we are seeing left and right, cheat to meet standards.

I wont go into the myriad of studies for and against just about everything, by “researchers” typically paid and selected by one side or the other for the expressed purpose of reinforcing their own claims.  Instead I will tell the story of some students and educators at Parks Middle School in Atlanta, GA–my hometown.

One of the biggest NCLB cheating scandals involved Atlanta Public Schools, and came to a head last year when the former principal and a testing coordinator plead guilty to cheating in order to meet “unattainable” goals set forth by Beverly Hall, the former APS Superintendent.  You see, depending on where they are in the chain of command, successfully delivering improvement and high scores on these standardized tests leads to big time bonuses.  Hall received more than $580k in bonuses in the 12 years she was in that position(disclaimer-those weren’t tied entirely to test scores although board members have stated the annual improvement played a big role in the decision to award the bonuses)

Now lets take the case of an imaginary 8th grader at Parks for the 2013-2014 school year, which was the year in which all students should be at the proficiency level-as measured by annual testing.  This student entered kindergarten in 2005, the second school year that NCLB was in effect.  Cheating became widespread among the feeder elementary schools to Parks in order to meet NCLB goals.  On an annual basis, children took their tests after spending the year being taught how to take the test and being taught the mechanics of math for example, but not the application of those mechanics.  Teachers would then conspire with the testing coordinators to change certain students answers to ensure they met the preset goals.  Each year our imaginary student was passed to the next grade even though they had not retained the required proficiency levels.

When she reached Parks Middle School(previously a school that had made great gains against all odds, and according to teachers had done so on the up and up until Christopher Waller became the principal in 2004) teachers couldn’t understand how these students could possibly be in the 6th grade when they could barely read.

Waller quickly realized that “all decisions have to be made by data–you have to be baptized in it.” based on district memos and meetings.  Each year a bigger and bigger emphasis was put on test scores.  Not only to meet but to exceed the standards.  Teachers who had poured their life’s work into education were either fired for not getting on “the train” or intellectually beaten into submission.  It became a regular occurrence for multiple teachers to pour over dozens of tests, changing answers to ensure passing grades.  Obviously, each year our imaginary student is lauded for exemplary performance, gets to attend pizza and ice cream parties for the school achieving its goals, gets a T-shirt for being a member of a “Blue Ribbon School” and is told how awesome they are.  Now early on the child believes the BS, they trust their teachers and they want to make their parents happy and proud.  But as they get older and they struggle more and more each year, only to continue to be passed to the next level and told how great they are.  Their parents also trust the teachers and the school systems and have no idea that while most teachers hate what they are doing, they justify it as being part of a greater good, or a necessary evil.  They rave about the student to their parents because how could you tell a parent their child cannot read or multiply two digit numbers in the 7th grade when they have passed every standardized test placed before them?

Our imaginary student passes 8th grade and moves on to High School not because she can read, write, communicate, multiply, divide, or even properly articulate their inner feelings of ineptitude, but because someone’s bonus and Title I funding depends on them moving on.  Then the cheating scandal breaks and the truth comes pouring out.  The proud parents of our imaginary student are stricken, they thought they had a bright little high-schooler on the path to greatness, and instead they had a depressed and angry 14 year old who reads at a 5th grade level.  The parents absolutely share the blame because they should have been more involved, but they are part of the new American norm, both parents working to support the family, microwave dinners and TV until bedtime or faces buried in cell phones and tablets updating FB statuses.  Or maybe they are part of the reality surrounding Parks, drug addicted single moms struggling on welfare programs and section 8, who in many instances read at a 5th grade level themselves.  Those single moms are no less proud of their child’s “accomplishments” and hope that they can break out of the ghetto and make something of themselves like their mom’s never had a chance to do.  They spend time at church or family reunions telling everyone that will listen how great their child is doing in school while the child listens and questions her own self worth.

In the end, the teachers, parents, and students are cheated by the system and the processes it has spawned.  But our imaginary 8th grader is lucky because this scandal was identified, and she was put on a special program to help actually teach her what she “needs” to know.  How many millions of students and parents across the country are living in this same reality but whose shortcomings haven’t been brought to light?  How would you feel if you got a letter in the mail telling you that your child is in a school system that had followed the same path as APS after you placed your trust in both the methods and the reported outcomes?