By Robert Green
The last week has seen some alarming developments with respect to the myopic focus on success rates and standardized test results that has been at the heart of US education reform since the introduction of George Bush’s No Child Left Behind law.
The first development is the indictment of 35 Atlanta educators for their participation in a massive fraud scandal involving teachers and administrators colluding to change answers on standardized tests. The district superintendant Beverly Hill has been charged with racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and making false statements. She could face up to 45 years in prison. The New York Times quoted teacher and whistle-blower Jackie Parks as stating that “the cheating had been going on so long, we considered it part of our jobs.”
The second development was the release of a survey by The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) indicating that the situation in Atlanta was far from unique. The survey found evidence of score manipulation in at least 37 states. “Across the U.S., strategies that boost scores without improving learning — including outright cheating, narrow teaching to the test and pushing out low-scoring students — are widespread,” said FairTest Public Education Director Bob Schaeffer. “These corrupt practices are inevitable consequences of the politically mandated overuse and misuse of high-stakes exams.”
In its analysis FairTest identifies over 50 ways that schools ‘cheat’ in order to manipulate results on high stakes standardized tests. These include:
- Encourage teachers to view upcoming test forms before they are administered.
- Exclude likely low-scorers from enrolling in school.
- Drill students on actual upcoming test items.
- Use thumbs-up/thumbs-down signals to indicate right and wrong responses.
- Erase erroneous responses and insert correct ones.
- Report low-scorers as having been absent on testing day.
According to Schaeffer, “The cheating explosion is one of the many reasons resistance to high-stakes testing is sweeping the nation.”
Which brings us to the week’s third important development: the announcement that Seattle Teachers would not be disciplined for their refusal to administer the State’s standardized tests. The fact that the State backed down on taking disciplinary action is strong indication that the movement against high stakes testing and data-driven education reform is gaining strength and legitmacy.
All of this should be a cautionary tale for the Quebec Government to rethink Bill 88 which was passed back in 2008. This bill requires schools and school boards to sign contracts committing them to make specific improvements to their success rates, irrespective of government funding. During the last election both the Liberals and the CAQ announced their intention to link school success rates to monetary incentives as has been done in the US.
The Fédération autonome des enseignants (FAE) has recently begun to ring the alarm bells about its members being increasingly pressured to inflate their marks. In an interview with the CBC FAE President Pierre St-Germain describes the problem in Quebec: “The minister puts pressure on the school boards to improve their success rates; the school boards put pressure on the school administrations so that in their schools, the success rate is higher, and [as a result], the school administration puts pressure on the teachers.”
Clearly, if Quebec wants to maintain the integrity of its education system it needs to respect the professional integrity of its teachers. If it wants to improve success rates, it needs to actually address the problems that teachers have been complaining about for years: systemic underfunding; a provincial curriculum that does not have the support of teachers; lack of support for students with special needs.
As the US experience has shown, imposing arbitrary goals with respect to success rates – as Bill 88 does – only increases the likelihood of fraud while doing absolutely nothing to improve the learning conditions of students.
For more see: Is ‘No Child Left Behind’ Coming to Quebec?