With Passover ending tomorrow, perhaps we should add another plague to the list that gets repeated at this time of year. You know: frogs, locusts, hail, boils, and now cheating on high-stakes-tests. On Friday, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools was indicted along with 34 others, including teachers and principals, for widespread cheating – by adults – on the state’s standardized state tests. Investigators found 178 Atlanta educators had worked to change student answers, among other things, to increase the district’s performance. Eighty-two people have already confessed and the superintendent now faces up to 45 years in jail. [Washington Post, 3-30-13]
For a while, Atlanta appeared to be a testing success story, particularly given the number of poor and African American students in the district. Under Dr. Beverly Hall, student scores spiked – unbelievably high – and the American Association of School Administrators named her superintendent of the year. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invited her to the White House and she earned over a half million dollars in bonus pay tied to student performance. But the house of cards fell apart when prosecutors convinced a teacher to wear a wire, revealing how some were selected to meet secretly in back rooms donning gloves to erase and correct student answers on test sheets. [New York Times, 3-29-13]
But this is not just happening in Atlanta. The national obsession with test results – and the corporate-style reforms such as privatization based on them – has produced a plague of cheating scandals. The superintendent of El Paso, Texas is now in prison for taking low-performing students out of classes in order to increase the district’s test scores. A similar situation is under investigation in Ohio, where it appears several cities listed low-performing students as “withdrawn” to remove their scores from school totals. [New York Times, 3-29-13] And let’s not forget right here in Pennsylvania where our own state Secretary of Education, Rom Tomalis, was caught both lying and cheating about student test scores. [See “A Liar and a Cheat”]
FairTest (the National Center for Fair and Open Testing) released a report last week showing confirmed cases of test score manipulations in at least 37 states and the District of Columbia. Washington D.C., of course, was the site of an Atlanta-style story under former superintendent Michelle Rhee – now the darling of the corporate reform movement who is famous for publicly firing a principal and massive school closures – who oversaw her own “Erasure-gate.” FairTest has documented more than 50 ways that schools improperly inflate test scores and the organization’s public education director Bob Shaeffer explains, “These corrupt practices are inevitable consequences of the politically mandated overuse and misuse of high-stakes exams.” [FairTest, 3-27-13]
Pedro Noguera, the New York University scholar hired by the Pittsburgh Public Schools as a consultant, put it simply: “I don’t condone cheating but I see what happened in Atlanta and the other districts where cheating has occurred as a direct result of the insane fixation on raising test scores at the expense of actually insuring that children are learning. The real fault lies with the federal and state governments that have been applying the pressure on school districts.” [DianeRavitch, 3-30-13]
Yet some legislators want to ratchet up the stakes attached to testing even more. One particularly cruel example comes from Tennessee where Republican state Sen. Stacey Campfield has introduced a bill calling for the state to cut welfare benefits to parents when their children do not perform well on standardized tests. [FoxNews, 1-28-13] Talk about high-stakes.
Parents, students, and teachers all over the country are starting to fight this madness through the civil disobedience of opting-out. [For more on the movement here in PA, see “Time’s Up”] Yinzercator Kathy Newman wrote a wonderful Op-Ed, copied below, that appeared on the front page of yesterday’s Sunday Forum section explaining why her family is opting out. The piece has gone viral on social media, with over 4,000 Facebook shares from the Post-Gazette website alone (as of 10AM this morning and climbing fast by the minute). Be sure to also check out the terrific conversation it has sparked on-line, with many teachers weighing in to explain their support for the opt-out movement.
It’s time to change the stakes in student assessment and end this plague of cheating. Like another one of the famous Egyptian plagues that took the lives of children, high-stakes-testing is stealing the educational lives of our children.
Why I Won’t Let My Son Take the PSSA:
The Opt Out Movement is Growing Because High Stakes Tests are Wrecking Our Schools
I am an English professor. So you can imagine how my pride was hurt when my 9-year-old son Jacob started bringing home low scores on his practice reading tests for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.
My husband and I have been helping Jacob with his test-prep reading homework every weeknight this year, and it has been a grim slog. At times I have found myself getting angry when Jacob has fidgeted, or when he has had trouble focusing. Sometimes I have gotten angry when he simply hasn’t been able to answer the questions.
Then one day this March it dawned on me. I am getting angry at my son about a test. A test that I do not like. A “high-stakes” test that will put so much pressure on Jacob that it probably will not reflect his true abilities. I also realized something else: Jacob does not love to read.
After doing some research and talking with other parents, my husband and I decided to “opt out” Jacob from the PSSA tests. We are opting him out because we do not like what high-stakes tests are doing to Jacob, to our family, to his teachers, to his school and, ultimately, to our entire education system.
High-stakes tests like the PSSAs are used to evaluate, close and punish public schools, including my son’s school, Pittsburgh Linden, a K-5 magnet school in Point Breeze. Linden’s Adequate Yearly Progress score is bound to Linden’s PSSA test results. According to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, every public school in the United States must be 100 percent proficient in reading and math (based on test scores) by 2014.
Last year, Linden did not make AYP. In fact, only six Pittsburgh Public Schools did. A neighboring school, Colfax, which is one of the best schools in the East End, has been labeled “low-achieving” and is currently under something called “Corrective Action II.” Under this label, a school can be reconstituted, chartered or privatized.
High-stakes tests also warp the educational environment. This March, as Linden is gearing up for the PSSAs, the hallways were stripped bare as per state law. Artwork, motivational slogans, student-made posters, the Women’s History display my kids helped to make, my daughter’s picture of herself as a “writer” when she grows up, the “dream” statements everyone filled out in January with the large cutout of Martin Luther King — all of it has come down. During testing season, access to Linden’s new iPads — for which I helped to write the grant that allowed us to acquire them — will also be curtailed.
The curriculum at Linden is narrowing, too. As testing has ratcheted up, and as Gov. Tom Corbett’s billion-dollar cut to Pennsylvania’s K-12 education budget have kicked in, schools across the state are dropping programs that are not measured by tests.
Last year at Linden the third-grade band program was cut, dozens of hours of music instruction were cut, our science programming was reduced, and we were slated to lose our art teacher (fortunately we were able to save her). We lost dozens of hours of library instruction, and children are allowed access to the library only once every two weeks. Ironically, the loss of our library hours will hurt the students more when it comes to testing. A recent study found that “[w]ith a full-time librarian, students are more likely to score ‘Advanced’ and less likely to score ‘Below Basic’ on reading and writing tests.”
Also, there is the stress. Jacob, only a third-grader, has cried, gotten dejected and thrown fits over his test-prep requirements, both at home and at school. Sixth graders in our district will take 23 different tests this year — up from nine the previous year.
During the tests, students are treated like prisoners, with limited bathroom breaks and constant monitoring. These conditions are especially hard for special-needs children and children with Individual Education Plans.
Teachers are also stressed. My son’s third-grade teacher has been working so hard this year that he arrives many days as early as 6 a.m. and stays for hours after school, sometimes as late as 9 p.m. From around the district I am hearing stories about teachers crying in the hall — devastated by the harm they believe the tests are inflicting.
Let me be clear. I believe in evaluation as a tool — I use quizzes and other testing techniques in my college classroom. But high-stakes tests, tests used to label schools, teachers and students as failures, are damaging our nation’s educational system.
Here in Pittsburgh and across southwestern Pennsylvania, the movement to opt out of standardized testing is taking root. In the Pittsburgh Public Schools there are parents at Colfax, Greenfield, Liberty, Linden, Montessori and Phillips who are opting their children out of the PSSAs. Across the region, some parents in Mt. Lebanon, Somerset County and Westmoreland County are doing so as well. In Mt. Lebanon, a group of parents opted out when their children’s school cut back on recess, extended the length of the school day and reduced other school services, such as counseling and nursing — all to make way for more testing.
The opt-out movement is also swelling nationwide. Earlier this year, teachers in several Seattle high schools refused to administer a high-stakes test called the MAP. In Portland, Ore.; Providence, R.I.; and Denver, Colo., students themselves have been leading the charge against the tests. Just last month in Texas, more than 10,000 parents rallied against an increase in testing and decrease in funding for Texas public schools. Some of these actions are coming under the banner of United Opt Out National (unitedoptout.com).
Next month, while Jacob’s classmates are nervously sharpening their pencils and getting hushed by their teachers, Jacob is going to be in the Linden library, reading for pleasure — a pastime I have encouraged and rewarded since I realized that Jacob isn’t keen on reading.
With this act of civil disobedience, our family will contribute to the revolt against the standardized testing that is hurting students, schools and the quality of education. I want my children to learn, but also to love to learn. Don’t you?
Kathy M. Newman is an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University (firstname.lastname@example.org).