Assessment Opinion

1-800-Cheater: Power and Control in Test-Score Scandals

By Nancy Flanagan — April 06, 2015 3 min read
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I once sat on a statewide task force pulled together to investigate “irregularities” in statewide assessment scores. This was pre-NCLB, back in the days when Michigan students were tested three times—4th, 7th and 10th grades—and the tests, as well as grade-level content expectations, were created and tweaked at the state level. Every year, it seemed, there were buildings and districts where students made remarkable gains, far beyond what might be expected, even using the most optimistic measures of growth due to improved instruction and diligence. Looking back on this, today, I give the MI Department of Education big props for spending a day probing this phenomenon with a very mixed group of stakeholders.

There were a half-dozen classroom teachers present, and perhaps the same number of superintendents and principals. There were assessment experts, from the university, and there were Business Roundtable leaders, who had pushed Michigan into developing statewide assessments with ever-higher stakes in the first place. There was a high-ranking executive from one of the Big Three at my table—a man whose name I recognized from the newspapers. Before tackling the goal--devising a plan for what to do about irregular score patterns—we saw some informational slides: Erasures. Fifty-point score profile jumps, from one year to the next. Item analysis and why questions nearly every child gets right often get dumped.

Mr. Auto Exec grew impatient. The school district in which his company’s headquarters were located had posted a 38 percent gain in the previous year—evidenced in the slide presentation. He became livid, and loud—we need to root out these teachers and principals who are thwarting the purpose of these expensive tests (building the workforce of the future)! The presenter from the MDE asked the corporate mogul, this highly regarded and exorbitantly compensated business leader, just how, precisely, the state should do this. He thought for a moment, then proposed a confidential hotline, where students, parents and teachers could report cheating in their home districts, for a modest reward. We could call it 1-800-Cheater, and advertise on local TV!

The superintendent from the district posting a 38-point gain was also present. He explained that the exceptional rise in scores occurred because students whose first language was not English had not been tested in the latest round. This was permissible under the law at that time. But the superintendent was sorry that the focus on comparative scoring in the media had forced him to pull ESL students out of the testing pool, because it had been a pretty good source of information on how well his district was doing in teaching kids who didn’t come to school with age-level facility in English, over three-year instructional spans. Looking good for the newspapers was a losing proposition for his district and the work of his professional staff.

None of these facts made any impact on Auto Magnate—and we were never able to develop a state plan to address questionable scores. The educators in the room closed ranks. We understood what was real and useful in standardized testing—and what was hype. That was then, however.

What has happened in Atlanta—the cheating scandal—should horrify us as a nation, and as a profession. As my friend Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price said, upon seeing the array of faces of teachers accused and convicted—there’s almost too much to unpack. The story is the ultimate denigration of teaching, public education, equity and respect as nationally held values. The overt racism and classism is blatant. A lose-lose-lose. And it was set into motion when educators—school leaders and teachers—were coerced into following top-down policy. “Fail"—or cheat.

There have been many excellent commentaries on the situation—here, for example. I have decided, however, not to read comments or articles that begin with “Of course, I don’t condone cheating, but. ...”

Let’s be real. All of us who genuinely want the best for our students know what’s moral, what’s simply following orders, and what is done for personal gain, kids be damned. What happened in Atlanta was shameful in ways that had nothing to do with standardized testing, and everything to do with power, control, and scapegoating.

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