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June11,2000

When teachers are cheaters

As the pressure to improve test scores increases, more administrators are fixing the numbers

By Barbara Kantrowitz and Daniel McGinn

This spring has been a season of embarrassment for the nation’s public schools. In suburban Potomac, Md., an elementary-school principal resigned last month after parents complained their children were coached to give the right answers on state tests. In Ohio, state officials are investigating charges of cheating by teachers at a Columbus elementary school that was recently praised by President Clinton for raising test scores. And in New York City, more than four dozen teachers and administrators from 30 schools stand accused of urging their students to cheat on various standardized city and state tests.

 IT’S BAD ENOUGH when kids get kicked out for cheating. But as the school year ends, an alarming number of teachers and principals face charges of fixing the numbers on high-stakes tests that determine everything from whether an individual kid gets promoted to an entire district’s annual budget. Although there are no firm statistics, school officials agree that the problem has become much worse in the past few years as more states have adopted testing as a way to audit national and state educational standards. In theory, the exams ensure that teachers pass on the right lessons. The problem is that high scores — not high standards — have become the holy grail.
       In some parts of the country, educators can get bonuses of as much as $25,000 if they raise their students’ scores. In other places, school officials can lose their jobs if their students don’t produce the right numbers. And the repercussions extend beyond the classroom, even affecting real-estate values. Scores have become “the only exchangeable currency we have any more about whether schools are bad or good,” says Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut.
Even the best tests are designed with much more modest goals. They’re supposed to be diagnostic tools — to help pinpoint gaps in learning. They don’t provide a full picture of a child’s — or a school’s — accomplishments any more than a single blood test can supply all the data a doctor needs to treat a patient. And they can have a significant error rate, says George Madaus, a professor of education and public policy at Boston College. “You can’t use these tests by themselves to make any decisions,” he says.
       That hasn’t stopped policymakers from trying to use tests as a quick fix for all that ails public schools. And the pressure quickly trickles down to principals and teachers — who are supposed to be role models. No one’s condoning cheating, but test critics see it as the inevitable side effect of score mania. “Cheating is simply one more piece of a dangerous fallout from the politicians and bureaucrats placing too much emphasis on standardized tests,” says Peter Sacks, the author of “Standardized Minds,” a critical look at the testing movement.
In the worst cases, teachers or administrators are accused of out-and-out fraud. In Columbus, for example, students say adult tutors actually told them the right answers — a charge the school’s principal denies. Last year a Texas grand jury indicted the Austin Independent School District on charges of criminal tampering. In what was believed to be the country’s first prosecution of a school district, investigators alleged that low-scoring students were excluded from the test, thus raising the overall results. One official resigned, denying wrongdoing, and the district avoided a trial through plea bargaining.
In other cases, teachers are alleged to have coached students by having them study earlier versions of an exam. Sometimes teachers have kids practice questions that are almost identical to ones that will be on a test. That’s not technically cheating, but it isn’t real teaching either. Lorrie Shepard, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, uses the example of third graders preparing for a math test that the teachers know will contain a question asking kids to circle one third of a set of three umbrellas. The kids practice by circling one third of a set of three ice-cream cones. They’ll probably get the right answer on the test, but are they learning the broader point about fractions? “Can they even circle two thirds of the ice-cream cones?” Shepard asks. “What about two thirds of nine Popsicle sticks?”

‘NONSENSE CONTENT’
       This sort of “teaching to the test” is a far more serious threat than outright cheating, according to some experts. Renzulli calls this the “ram, remember, regurgitate” curriculum, a new version of the three R’s. “It’s nonsense content,” says Linda McNeil, a professor of education at Rice University and author of “Contradictions of School Reform: The Educational Costs of Standardized Tests.” In Texas, she says, some kids spend months doing nothing but preparing for the test. “It’s like you’re mentally teaching kids to hit the delete key,” she says. “You’re training them to forget. The real cheating is of a solid academic curriculum.”
Other educators worry that all the publicity about cheating could trigger more than just a backlash against tests. “We may find ourselves in a position where the standards movement may die, and I think that would be a tragedy,” says Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association. A better solution is to de-emphasize tests and focus on more sophisticated assessments like student portfolios and classroom performance. That may not entirely eliminate cheating, but it certainly would make it a lot harder to play with the numbers.
With Ellise Pierce in Dallas and Erika Check



Do you sympathize with teachers who help kids cheat on state tests?
5035 responses

Yes, the repercussions of failure are too great, and teachers are under too much pressure to deliver good scores.
 
12%

No, cheating is always wrong, and teachers should act as role models.
 
88%



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