Arizona is getting ready to go all in on last year's AzMERIT scores. We already know the overall passing rates for the state. Scores are down from the AIMS test. And we know why: because the bar was intentionally set higher. But we have yet to learn the individual school scores. Before we see the scores, though, we have a pretty good idea which schools will be the high fliers—schools that draw students from high income families—and which will be criticized for failing their children—schools that draw students from lower income families. But which schools will beat the odds? We won't know that for awhile, nor should we feel confident those "Why can't other schools be that successful?" results actually reflect student achievement.
Here's something that, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, is a known known: Attaching high stakes to standardized tests decreases whatever validity the tests might otherwise have. If the test results are important enough, schools and teachers will find all kinds of legitimate ways to help students get higher scores than if they weren't coached. Take, for an example, oh, say, me. When I was teaching in Oregon during the first few years of our high stakes state tests, I'm reasonably sure I helped a number of students just make it over the passing line on their 10th grade writing tets by teaching them the best way to approach the writing sample. I tried to make them better writers in the process, but if I hadn't given them approaches focused on boosting their scores, some passing students wouldn't have made the cut.
And then there are the illegal ways of raising student scores that involve cheating, not by students but by teachers and/or administrators. How often does it happen? The probable answer is, it happens far more often than we know about.
Here are some cases of proven and possible cheating which have made the news:
. The biggest cheating scandal in the country was in the Atlanta schools, where eleven educators were found guilty of cheating and eight of them went to prison. That should have been enough to scare every other Atlanta teacher straight, but it doesn't looks like it did
When a jury convicted 11 former Atlanta educators in a test-cheating conspiracy in the spring, some education experts thought it may signal the end of high-profile academic misconduct cases for the 49,000-student school system.
But the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported on multiple cases of possible improper grading practices in recent months, "including cases of principals pressured to alter grades; retaliation against those who balked; and supervisors allegedly ignoring or implicitly approving the signs of cheating," the Associated Press writes.
Why would the latest group of cheaters be so stupid after seeing what happened to some of their colleagues? Well, if they had cheated before and didn't do it this time, the significantly lower test scores would be a smoking gun pointing to earlier test fixing, and maybe they were under so much pressure to get those scores up and keep them up, they felt they had to continue regardless of the risk.
Before the scandal broke, I should add, Atlanta schools were considered some of the most successful in the country because of their high test scores. They got an award from Ed Sec Arne Duncan.
New York City
. Teachers College Community School in Harlem, connected with the prestigious teachers college, was getting raves for the work it was doing with poor kids, until it was accused of cheating
The principal of a popular elementary school in Harlem acknowledged that she forged answers on students’ state English exams in April because the students had not finished the tests, according to a memorandum released Monday by the New York City Education Department.
The tragic aftermath of the principal's admission is, she took her own life.
In response to problems across the district, the New York City Department of Education is creating a task force
to focus on test-related problems. New York state keeps a database of allegations of test fraud
in public schools, district and charter, and parochial schools. It lists 670 allegations between the 2002-3 school year and the 2010-11 school year, though there's no information about how many of those were followed up or proven.
. The scores of seventh and eighth grade students have been invalidated at a district school because of problems with test security
. It's not clear if there was any test tampering, but two tenured teachers were put on leave and the district wants to fire them.
. A multi-year investigation of cheating recently added two more educators to the list
of those who have been disciplined. A total of 53 district schools are being looked at because of suspicious erasure patterns on tests and large gains on the schools' test scores.
. In Nogales, Wade Carpenter Middle School was accused of cheating on the AIMS test. An independent investigation concluded that, yes, cheating by adults took place
. Who did it? The investigation wasn't able to find out for sure, but evidence points away from teachers and district officials and toward a library media specialist and a guidance counselor. Before the cheating was discovered, the school bragged that it was the top Title 1 school in the country, and other Arizona schools with students from low income families were asked, "If Nogales can do it, why can't you?"
How many other Arizona schools have used illegal methods—as opposed to the legal and encouraged methods of teaching to the test—to boost student scores? No one knows, but seven schools were cited by the Department of Education as having suspicious patterns of erasures on their AIMS tests
. I haven't seen any follow up about investigations, but it's unlikely these allegations were cooked up. More likely, they're a sampling of what's happening at other schools in Arizona — and schools around the country.
My two conclusions from the cheating stories I've read are: (1) High stakes tests can lead educators to unscrupulous behavior they would have thought themselves incapable of, simply because the stakes are so high for them as individuals as well as for their schools and school districts; and (2) Standout success stories of schools defying the odds and getting higher-than-expected test scores should be viewed with an appropriate level of skepticism. They may mean a school is doing a fantastic job with its students, or they may mean the school is doing a good job of creating scores that give an inflated picture of student achievement.