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, March 11, 2011

Testing World = Cheating World

Suppose your family's well-being depended on your five-figure job and your employer provided health insurance. Suppose you would lose your job if the 25 children in your care didn't pass a test. Suppose these children - which you did not get to pick - had bad home lives, which kept them from doing their homework and showing up to school ready to learn.

You will lose your home and your children's medical care if these kids don't pass, yet you know that, despite your best efforts, they won't. What would you do?
Robert Hamann, a veteran social studies teacher, had been volunteering to help students at Scarlet Oaks Career Center in the Cincinnati area. So he already knew the senior taking the graduation-mandatory writing test.
Confused by the test instructions, the student asked for help. He told her to use the strategies they had discussed, and she began to string together a written answer. With each halting sentence, she looked to him for approval and he told her to write it down.
"In a moment of trying to help this kid, I kind of lost myself," Hamann says of the 2005 incident. "This was what we had been doing in review. ... This kid is in 12th grade trying to pass a ninth-grade test. This is her last shot. So, you're explaining, explaining, explaining, and I think I gave her too much information."
Hamann reported himself immediately. He got no breaks: His teaching license was suspended for three months; he now works as an administrator in another Cincinnati-area school.
"I didn't think I was, at the time, violating any rules, but now ... years later, it's obvious I was," he says.
Investigators acknowledge that without a confession like Hamann's, some cheating is impossible to detect, because it often involves only a brief conversation between teacher and student.
It's "a fairly simple operation. All one has to do is lean close and whisper," says Christine DiDonna, coordinator and school counselor at Groveland Elementary in Florida. She has helped conduct several investigations, including the one involving Munoz, the former teacher.
To avoid expressly giving answers, some teachers have resorted to codes. At a California elementary school, the phrase "toilet paper" meant a student should subtract or "wipe away" a number in a math problem. In other states, a teacher would cross her arms if a student marked the wrong answer.
Kimberly Richter, a fifth-grade teacher at Schwab Elementary in Cincinnati, admitted to pointing at incorrect answers on the math test in 2008, but she said it was only to get the kids back on track. Many had quit paying attention 30 minutes into the two-hour-plus test. The school already was slated for closure, so better scores weren't going to help.
"I knew it was wrong, but I didn't think it would matter," says Richter, who insists she never gave out correct answers. "I didn't think it was going to blow up in my face like it did."
Richter's 25 students had to take a makeup test and her license was suspended for six months. She no longer teaches in Cincinnati Public Schools.
Let me be clear: I do not excuse cheating. But I also live in the real world; if a teacher had been handed a bad class, and their failure meant the teacher's own chronically ill kid wouldn't get his meds anymore... well, I'm not about to cast the first stone.

"High-stakes" means exactly that. Teachers are not living lives of luxury; most can't afford to be out of work for even a short time. What do you think will happen when the well-being of their families depends on a single exam?

The only solution to this will be to vastly increase the resources needed to investigate and proctor standardized tests. And remember: the NJ Teacher Effectiveness Task Force wants to develop lots more of those tests so that all teachers have to run the standardized gauntlet.

Where are we going to get the money for that?

By the way: kudos to USA Today for reporting on this very serious problem. There's a lot to unpack here:
Sometimes, the punishment seems remarkably severe for the infraction.
In 2007, Greg Parks was prepping his kids for the Florida state test, but in what he calls an accidental peek at the test, the middle-school math teacher noticed a troubling choice of words: Instead of asking kids about the volume of a can — the example he and the textbooks had been using — the test asked about the volume of a swimming pool.
"I was really worried they wouldn't understand that the concept was the same. We'd never gone over that before," says Parks, a 12-year Tampa-area teacher. The next day, he asked his advanced classes: "Did all of you understand that height is the same as depth?"
According to the state of Florida, that's cheating because he taught students the answer to a test question. Although no tests were invalidated and Parks talked about the test only after the students were finished, the state ordered one year of probation and a fine as a result of the two-year investigation. The district gave him a five-day unpaid suspension.
"Saying depth equals height cost me about $4,000," says Parks, who teaches in another district. "(The state) kept saying they wouldn't be able to use that question. To this day, it makes no sense to me why that's so wrong."
If the authorized curriculum used "height," and the test used "depth," that's poor test design. And these poorly designed tests, which are not open to public scrutiny, are now going to determine who gets to teach.

Does that sound like an enticement for bright young people to enter the field?

No comments: