More tests mean more cheaters

I just read Rachel Aviv’s article “Wrong Answer” in The New Yorker magazine that nearly made me cry. It focuses on a middle school in a very poor neighborhood called Pittsburgh just outside Atlanta, GA, where teachers cheated on standardized tests for years in order to just keep the school open under the No Child Left Behind and local superintendent’s regulations that mandated a certain percentage of students pass standardized tests, with a certain percentage increase in test scores each year.

It is the story of the rise of a much needed school in a neighborhood where kids never expected to even graduate from high school or leave the neighborhood. They saw themselves as doomed to continue the cycle of poverty and social devastation, but, eventually some of the teachers and the principal changed the culture of the school and students began to succeed on a real level, though not on tests, so they manufactured better scores to keep the school going.

It’s an excellent article that really brings up both sides of the issue, but the basic ignorance of all education reformers: poverty is a MAJOR factor in how well a school works. A public school like the one I work in, one in a mostly white, affluent area, would never have a problem with test scores over all. Our students do well because very few of them have any real problems that prevent them from studying and learning. But the situations presented in this article, and the thousands of others before it, demonstrate that learning doesn’t happen if there are too many other stressors on students like hunger, poverty, drugged-out parents, poor self-esteem, and poor hygiene.

Yet, this country continues to push data driven evaluations of students and teachers alike while teachers in any neighborhood struggle to help kids deal with life as well as push them to succeed academically.

A change in this is coming. It probably will take a few more years until high-schoolers who graduate from test-driven programs fail to succeed in college and life. Sure there are small “revolutions” occurring, like the one that happened in Park Middle School, that are trying to focus on the students as people instead of as a source of statistics, but these little forays into trying to actually educate students instead of focus on testing do next to nothing if policy-makers don’t pay attention to them.

The problem in education used to be a very complex mixture of dealing with social issues like poverty, administrative issues like keeping bad teachers, and cultural issues like parents who don’t actually care about their students’ learning as long as the grades are high. Now it is compounded by the increased ignoring of the poor, the drive to judge all teachers by unfair and misguided standards, and the growth of the culture that all that matters is the grade, not what it took to actually achieve it. Testing has made teachers into cheaters, students into cheaters, parents into cheaters, and politicians into, well, bigger cheaters. Who has benefitted? A small number of corporate interests. They have reaped a nice, tidy profit off of the whole system by selling more tests and the supplies needed to “pass” those tests.

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