published Monday, June 14th, 2010

Educators, tests and cheating

The pressure to cheat likely has never been higher in the nation's secondary schools than it is now. In a climate where success is increasingly measured by standardized tests, a high score is often more than a measure of a student's academic progress and achievement. Increasingly, it also can be seen as a way to safeguard a job, to earn a promotion or, in some instances, to win a substantial pay raise or bonus. And those who cheat on the tests for those purposes are not students: They are teachers and school administrators, and their infractions on high stakes tests are on the rise.

The most recent example comes from Texas, where a principal, an assistant principal and three teachers at an elementary school outside Houston resigned late last month following confirmed reports of tampering with a state achievement test. School district officials said the educators had prepared a detailed study guide for a fifth-grade science exam by "tubing" it -- squeezing a test booklet without breaking its paper seal to form an open tube so that questions inside could be viewed and copied into the guide. The methodology was ingenious, but that does not obscure the fact that the act was certainly unethical and possibly illegal.

As it often the case, the cheaters ultimately were caught. When the school's scores on the tests seemed artificially high, an official investigation was started. It didn't take long to discover the cheating and to implicate the educators involved. The students' scores were invalidated and they'll have to retake the test -- an unintended lesson that they'll probably recall for years to come.

Similar cases of teachers seeking to boost scores have been reported across the United States. The most far-reaching of them so far occurred in Georgia.

There, the state school board instigated investigations into almost 200 schools in February following a study of math and reading test scores that suggested wrong-doing. They discovered that some educators seemed to have erased wrong answers penciled in by students and then substituted the correct answers. Detailed forensic studies uncovered a high incidence of what experts call wrong-to-right erasures. Subsequent inquiry revealed widespread cheating.

Almost a dozen educators -- both teachers and administrators -- already have been implicated in the mess and now face discipline from a state agency that could take their licenses. That apparently is not the end of the investigation. Officials familiar with the Georgia investigation now suggest that additional cases of cheating will soon be uncovered.

Other cheating cases have been reported recently in Virginia, Massachusetts, Indiana and Nevada. That's hardly news. What is new is the number of those willing to cheat.

Experts say the number of educators who cheated on such exams in the past was minuscule. Now it is 1 to 3 percent of teachers -- and the numbers are rising. The new-found willingness to bend and break long-standing rules is prompted by the increasing importance of standardized testing and the need to meet benchmarks that often carry considerable penalties if they re not met.

Much of the pressure related to such testing can be tied directly to the No Child Left Behind law, which requires that all students test at grade level in math and reading by 2014. As that time draws near, pressure to meet that goal grows. States, which understandably worry about funding tied to testing mandates, have exacerbated the situation.

Many, including Tennessee, have implemented regulations in which students scores can become a component in teacher evaluations. Some have made tenure dependent on test scores. Still others now tie bonuses to improved student performance on assessment tests. The resultant pressure sometimes pushes teachers and administrators over the line of propriety.

While it is true that teachers should be held accountable for student performance, there are problems in doing so in one-size-fits-all fashion. Some children obviously come to school better prepared to learn than others. Students from stable, two-parent homes where books and respect for learning are an integral part of daily life perform better in school and score higher on standardized tests than children whose home learning environment is less nurturing. The challenge for educators is to find ways to bring less-advantaged students up to mandated levels without resorting to cheating or to other shortcuts.

Those educators who willingly and selflessly work in schools where student achievement traditionally has been a problem should not be penalized as long as students in their charge make meaningful progress in reaching state and federally mandated goals. There are ways to promote broad-based educational achievement as measured by standardized tests without holding teachers hostage to test scores.

Programs in Chattanooga and elsewhere successfully attract teachers to inner-city and under-performing schools. Others reward highly successful teachers who produce student improvement. Those successful programs should be replicated and shared, though it will take a change of heart and policy on the part of the entrenched educational bureaucracy to make that possible.

The pressure placed on teachers and schools by across-the-board testing won't be eased until government policies support substantial investments that will help teachers and students work cooperatively in reaching equitable educational goals. Until such changes are made, cheating likely will be a problem -- and students and teachers will remain captive to a testing and numbers game that arguably harms more than helps the nation's public schools.

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