What Texas' Test-Cheating Allegations Should Tell Us
Ohanian Comment: Kudos to John Young for recognizing that most educators don't cheat and for looking at where the real cheating is happening. He sees that the hysteria induced by NCLB is robbing children of an education.
Quiet on the set. Dim the house lights. Cue "applause." And now to Camera 1. The contestant is sweaty-lipped. First question, please.
We say that what we do when putting students under the glare of high-stakes testing is "for the children." The truth is, it's for the cameras. More appropriately, it's for the sponsors — the politicians who sell their brand of "accountability" to the home audience.
On that count, the masses should be in an uproar. If the game-show scandals of the 1950s drew a nation's attention, the test-cheating allegations of the 2000s in Texas should get as much. Because it's not a game. And Texas has helped write the rules for the rest of the country.
An investigation by The Dallas Morning News found that state test scores by 200 public schools across Texas, including some touted by the Bush administration as paragons of the learning curve, don't stand up. The very students who polished off the apple in one grade choked on it in subsequent grades.
The impulse, of course, is simply to remove the cheating educators and go on with the show. Too little thought is given to the show itself. Are we serving children? Or is this just good fiction masked as reality TV?
A small but growing number of educators, parents and, yes, students, are questioning who benefits from the whole "accountability" game. Any parent would question the benefits when the results of the end-all state test go home and he or she can hardly decipher what they show, aside from a child's adequacy or lack thereof.
For the children? No, for the show. This is not to say that crucial learning doesn't take place that translates on these state tests. It does. But ultimately these tests are about institutions and political biases seeking to legitimize themselves on a narrow template.
Is cheating rampant? Unlikely. But at least under Texas' previous test, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, gaming of the test — test prep — was so rampant as to make results more than suspect.
I once sat in on a "TAAS writing" workshop in which a "TAAS writing expert" told teachers how to get their fourth-graders to ace the writing portion of the test. The result was writing that was passably poor — repetitive and formulaic. Unbelievably, now the state urges teachers to avoid some of the very habits this exercise drilled into so many grade-schoolers.
When classes were drilled and drilled on TAAS work sheets, essentially slowing everyone down so that the slowest would keep up, it wasn't cheating of the "Quiz Show" variety. But students with skills at or above grade level were being cheated out of true education.
Seemingly, that's less of a problem with the tougher Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills — TAKS. But with a more demanding and encompassing test comes the problem of keeping up with state mandates and doing so in a school year in which learning time often is sacrificed to assessment time.
Sometimes grade-school teachers who spend extra time on one academic area, based on a class's need, fall behind in addressing another.
One response to this in some districts has been so-called midcourse testing, district-generated tests to see if a class is on track. This means sometimes that students are tested on material to which they haven't been exposed. (And because of these tests, the class has even less time to expose them.)
The biggest problem with all of this top-down testing is that the diagnostic function of the test often is lost. In effect, the students are being used to grade the teacher or the curriculum or to justify policies that don't stand up as sound pedagogy.
And why? So some schools can be declared "failing" and some "exemplary." You know, the old ratings game. Lights. Cameras. Applause. Just who's cheating whom?
Young is editorial page editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
class="red">Ohanian Comment: The NCLB-provoked hysteria over test scores produces cheating.
John Young, Waco Tribune-Herald
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