Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cheating Teachers

In addition to writing mystery novels, I'm a full-time English teacher at a public high school. This weekend is the last weekend of the year before my students seek shelter from the sweltering Arizona heat and return, dutifully, to their desks on Monday morning. It's a hectic time, one full of promise and excitement for me as I think ahead to all the wonderful things we'll be exploring.

It's also a time of immense pressure and anxiety. Did I prepare enough? Do I really have to strength and stamina to control a room of 30 teenagers again? Why didn't I just go into something easier, like surgery?

But there's another pressure that all teachers feel, one that's been steadily increasing over the last decade or so: the pressure to perform.

I'm not talking about teacher evaluations, about the day-to-day in the classroom. I'm talking about standardized test scores. Through the No Child Left Behind Act, schools that don't make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) can have their funding cut, have their staff replaced, or even be shut down entirely.

My own school has done very well on these standardized tests (and other AYP measurements, like drop-out rates), but we still feel the effects of what I call the "data push," or the pressure for more and more data. Over the course of the year, our department devotes an entire month to standardized tests. That's 30 days of instruction gone to multiple-choice and essay tests.

Some of us deal with the pressure by prepping our students for the test as best we can, despite using up extra class time that could have been used for something more relevant to the kids. Others say the heck with the test, and trust that if we teach our students what they need to know, they'll do well on the tests anyway. (I personally cop a little of both attitudes.)

But some teachers take a different approach: they cheat.

Recently, it was discovered that "that more than 80 Atlanta teachers admitted to cheating on state standardized tests--with one group of elementary teachers even holding a 'party' after school to change their pupils' answers by hand" (link). A survey also showed that, in Michigan, where test scores are tied to teacher salaries, 30% of teachers feel the pressure to cheat, and 8% reported actually cheating on the test (link).

It's awful to think that teachers, who are supposed to model values, would do this. And while I don't agree with cheating, obviously, I can understand the pressure. In the same article reporting the Michigan statistics, I think professor Nelson Maylone said it best:

"Teachers and principals have not been told to raise student achievement levels; they've been told to raise test scores, and the two things are not the same."

I honestly don't know the solution to this one. I agree that there needs to be accountability, both for the teachers and the students, and standardized tests are the easiest and most cost-effective way to do that. At the same time, standardized tests don't show a complete picture of the student, and it's quite easy to "game" the system from both ends. For example, there are some tests that aren't high stakes for the students (they get to go on to the next grade regardless of whether they pass), but that still determine part of a teacher's evaluation. I've heard a number of stories where students didn't like their teacher and purposely did poorly in order to punish them.

What do you think? If you have kids, what have been some of your experiences with the new waves of testing? Are we doing it right? And, if not, how should we fix it?

In the end, it's all about the students. I want to do what's best for our kids. But sometimes, it's hard to know what that is.

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