I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, May 20, 2011

Testing Nation

The Bergen Record is shocked - shocked! - that there is cheating in high-stakes testing:
Yet teachers have repeatedly overstepped their bounds on testing day, including a widespread cheating scandal in Camden that was snuffed out by the state in 2005. And last year, teachers broke test-security rules at eight New Jersey schools, including four in Bergen County, Staff Writer Leslie Brody reported. In Woodcliff LakeLyndhurst and Elmwood Park, teachers gave some students extra time, guided others toward correct answers and passed around copies of essay questions. Meanwhile, as students tackle tests again this month, the state is looking into new allegations of security problems. 
It's no wonder, given the inclination of an educator and the high stakes of the exams. If too many students fail the tests, entire schools are deemed "failing" and subjected to a host of sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law, including offering transfers, restructuring or shutting down altogether. In addition, an annual report on schools' scores is widely published, including in The Record, which gives parents, educators and real-estate agents everywhere the chance to unofficially declare which local schools are good, better and best. 
There is robust debate over the adequacy of any standardized test to measure student learning, especially regarding special-needs students. But there can be no debate when it comes to following test-taking rules. Whether intentional or not, coaching is cheating. And that undermines the results, not to mention taxpayers' multimillion-dollar investment in the state testing program.
Hey, I've got a crazy idea: why doesn't the Bergen Record stop publishing the results? Especially since there is a "robust debate of their adequacy"? Maybe the schools will start using the tests as they are intended - as a measure of student progress and instructional methods - instead of advertisements that raise property values.

Of course, the realty industry has a vested interest in publishing test scores, and the Record has a vested interest in keeping the realtors happy - ever notice what makes up most of the Sunday classified section?

And the LA Times has led the way in showing how publishing these rankings of questionable "adequacy" can help the bottom lines of struggling newspapers.

So you'll forgive me if I'm skeptical hearing the tut-tutting from the press over the misuse of test scores. They've already shown they are more than ready to misuse them.

Everyone agrees that no one should cheat on standardized tests. The question is, as the stakes get higher and higher, how much are we willing to invest to secure the testing process? And is that investment of time and resources worth it?
State education officials have done a yeoman's job in building and improving New Jersey's testing program, which was ordered by the federal government with little financial support. But clearly, there's more to be done. Individual schools have decided to stop allowing teachers to proctor their own students' exams. This seems a common-sense, and low-cost, place to start.
First of all, I and many others have some serious reservations about that first statement, primarily because test security won't allow us to judge the validity or reliability of the tests themselves. There are many reasons to believe these tests are not particularly good indicators of student achievement; they are certainly terrible indicators of teaching ability.

But even if they were - what makes the Record think it will be "low-cost" to have teachers not proctor the exams? Who's going to do it? Substitutes? Guess what, folks: subs are hired and recommended by principals - the very same principals who have an interest in having their schools do well on exams.

The only way to increase the security of the test process is to take the entire enterprise away from the district and put it into independent hands. And that sounds like another slopping for the testing industry hogs to me.

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