Wednesday, October 31, 2012

California’s Cheating Scandal: NCLB-Gate, Yet Again

First there was Michelle Rhee’s cheating scandal in D.C. Then there was the Georgia cheating scandal. Since then, there have been numerous other cheating scandals across the nation, all driven by the same force—No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

With the threat of slashed federal revenues, school closures, mass firings of teachers, compulsory conversion to charter schools and numerous other onerous consequences, schools, districts and entire states are under phenomenal pressure to raise test scores. Under such pressure, it is not surprising that many are resorting to cheating.

Now California has been implicated in its own cheating scandal. 23 schools are being stripped of the state rankings for cheating or misconduct related to the state standardized exams, according to the Los Angeles Times. The infractions include helping students correct mistakes or giving them the test questions in advance.

The percentage of California schools that have been caught over the last three years is relatively small (only a couple dozen out of over 10,000 schools). Yet, in order to be stripped of their rankings, the schools had to have irregularities for more than 5% of their population, something that suggests a school-wide problem. It is also quite likely that the number of schools involved in cheating is much higher, since we only know about the ones that have been caught.

These cheating scandals reflect two fundamental problems with high stakes exams that testing proponents refuse to acknowledge:
  1. While it is certainly reasonable to hold teachers accountable for good teaching, high stakes exams do not do this. The tests are essentially a measurement of students’ literacy, academic maturity, and their ability to sit still and focus on multiple choice questions for extended periods of time. Students who have these skills tend to do well on the tests, regardless of their teachers’ ability in the classroom. Conversely, an excellent teacher who has a large percentage of students who are reading far below grade level or who do not do homework or come to class regularly would likely see low test scores, despite her skill in the classroom.
  2. Student test scores are far more dependent on outside-of-school factors like students’ socioeconomic status than they are on the quality of their schools and teachers. This significantly limits how much improvement schools can squeeze out of their students. Thus they are being held accountable and punished for something over which they have very limited control. Under these conditions, cheating should not only be expected, but could even be rationalized as a precaution against a school’s closure or the mass firing of its teachers, something that would likely do more harm than good for the students.

Of course most would probably argue that teachers should have more integrity and refuse to participate in cheating, even when pressured by their administrators, as is often the case (see Crescendo Charter School cheating scandal). But this is asking a lot when teachers are being laid off for far less than insubordination and job prospects continue to be dismal. I would rather see more teachers refuse to participate in the tests in the first place, since the tests are incapable of improving student learning or ensuring good teacher quality and they only serve to increase the stress and anxiety that already exist in schools, for both students and teachers.

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