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If You Overemphasize Test Scores, Don’t Be Surprised When People Cheat to Raise Them

2011 April 6

Last Monday, Michelle Rhee condemned a USA Today investigation of the successes that Washington, DC, public schools achieved under her tenure. From 2006 to 2010, most of which saw Rhee as chancellor, the percentage of students in Crosby S. Noyes Educational Campus demonstrating “proficiency” on federally mandated standardized tests raised staggeringly from 10% to 58%; a seemingly impossible feat. Rhee held Noyes up as a premier example of what public education reform might look like under the guidance of her test-based incentives. The school was awarded a Blue Ribbon by the Department of Education for its remarkable transformation. Last year, Washington ,DC, received $75 million from the federal government to support public and charter school development. While Noyes displayed an exceptional improvement, schools throughout the District made similarly stunning changes, commanding national attention and thrusting Rhee to the forefront of the corporate reform movement. However, if the unthinkable gains that Rhee’s students attained seemed impossible, that’s because they were.

USA Today uncovered a disturbing detail about the tests issued under Rhee’s charge: there were an unprecedented number of erasures, in which students negated their initial wrong answer and chose the correct one. This certainly happens, and students are undoubtedly encouraged to check their work, but on a test that formerly saw less than one wrong-to-right erasure per student, in a classroom in Noyes it saw 12.7. Statisticians consulted by USA Today claim, “The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance.”

The previous year, 75% of Noyes’s testing classrooms were flagged by the District’s testing company for the same reason. In the following two years, 80% of testing classrooms were flagged. However, since 2008, Noyes is just one of 103 Washington DC schools in which erasure rates exceeded the average.

Proficiency at Noyes has fluctuated wildly. Beginning at 24% in 2006, it rose to 44% in 2007, 62% in 2008, 84% in 2009, then sank back to 61% by 2010. While reading scores throughout the District dipped an average of 4 percentage points from 2009 to 2010, at Noyes they tanked an alarming 23 points. Though none of these statistics is a direct indication of cheating, they certainly demand investigation.

When USA Today published this and other disappointing information about Rhee’s efforts, Rhee placed the newspaper among the “enemies of school reform” and said a number of other things which she retracted last Wednesday when she admitted that some cheating might have occurred after all. She told the Washington Post, “You have got to have really strong test-security protocols at the district level and at the state level. The vast majority of people will not cheat, but there will be exceptions here and there.” When Rhee says, “there will be exceptions here and there,” that seems to understate things a bit, as the numbers published by USA Today are so far unparalleled.

This USA Today investigation was not limited to Washington, DC, schools, and similar results were discovered in each of the six states under review: Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio. Scott Mueller, a fifth-grade teacher in Ohio, broke with policy and looked at the tests prior to distribution and copied questions verbatim for test preparation. The Los Angeles Board of Education revoked the charter of six schools in which similar cheating was discovered. Federal authorities recently investigated public schools in Atlanta with the same suspicions. The district reacted by intimidating potential witnesses into abstention.

Diane Ravitch points out at the Daily Beast what should have been unmistakable from the beginning: when you overvalue test scores by threatening school funding and teacher jobs, you will get exactly the results you are looking for.

The problem is that standardized tests demonstrate little more than a student’s ability to take a standardized test. Consequently, they have almost nothing at all to do with education. With the rise of standardized testing, tests have transitioned from a valuable tool by which to gauge progress and assess needs into the focal point of entire curricula. What remains are curricula bent overwhelmingly toward test preparation, leaving crucial elements of childhood education under-addressed. By emphasizing standardized tests so fiercely, one begins to invalidate the vital pursuits that fall outside the bounds of the test. This has become tragically evident with arts programs, which are notoriously undervalued and readily discarded.

The test movement, catalyzed by the ironically titled No Child Left Behind act and championed by Rhee and a rising number of others in the field, has been detrimental to education. President Obama, on the same day USA Today published its findings, spoke out against standardized tests in a town hall meeting:

Too often what we have been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools . . . One thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching the test because then you’re not learning about the world, you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test and that’s not going to make education interesting.

When you threaten your educators with notices or pay cuts, of course they will tamper with test scores. You have taken their jobs away from them. No longer is an educator’s job to foster creativity, cultivate an alert and dynamic intellect and nurture in the student an insatiable curiosity about the vibrant and wonderful world they inhabit; it is to raise their score on a test. It is argued that education happens by way of this, but does this not sound precisely backward? Education must not be incidental; it must be primary. Christopher Hitchens once wrote: “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” The current model discourages unique individual growth and divergent, inventive thinking in favor of regimented recitation and factory-line performance. We have valued tests above the social, intellectual, and creative development of our children and this must not be excused or perpetuated.

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