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Education

New Yorker report shows widespread cheating by educators on standardized tests

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It's summer, but I'm going to talk about school for a minute here. This recent New Yorker article about standardized tests kind of blew my mind. In it, reporter Rachel Aviv profiles an urban middle school in Atlanta where teachers willfully cheat on the state standardized test; not only did a few of the teachers sneak a peak at the test before they were allowed to, the school's principal encouraged the teachers to correct the students' answers, too. 

At the end of the testing week, [math teacher Damany] Lewis went back to the testing office with Crystal Draper, a language-arts teacher. For about an hour, they erased wrong answers and bubbled in the right ones. They exchanged no words. Lewis couldn’t even look at her. “I couldn’t believe what we’d been reduced to,” he said. He tried to stay focused on the mechanics of the work: he took care to change, at most, one or two answers for every ten questions. “I had a minor in statistics, and it’s not that hard to figure out windows of probability,” he told me. Many students were on the cusp of passing, and he gave them a little nudge, so that they would pass by one or two points.

And Atlanta Public Schools are by no means the only ones guilty of cheating. Aviv writes that there "have been accounts of widespread cheating in dozens of cities, including Philadelphia, Toledo, El Paso, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, and St. Louis. According to a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office, forty states detected instances of cheating by educators in the previous two years."

Ugh.

Clearly they don't call it high-stakes testing without reason. So much is riding on the backs of these students who take these tests. As my colleague Dustin Dwyer reported in his radio documentary, The Big Test, standardized test scores have a kind of outsized influence on the economic fate of a city:

As citizens and taxpayers we ask schools to prove that their kids are learning so we have some form of accountability. But since the era of mandated student testing started a couple decades ago, we’ve come to use the test scores for more than just accountability. We use the scores to tell us where to send our kids, and where not to send our kids. Where to buy a house and not to buy a house. That means test scores end up affecting house prices - quite a lot. That affects city tax revenue, which affects city services. We’re talking ultimately about millions of dollars in economic impact, the fate of entire cities – all of it resting on how a child, as young as eight years old, performs on a single test. Of course, the test doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about a school.

True, we need to hold schools accountable; we need to know if our children are learning and at an adequate pace. But maybe these standardized tests alone aren't the best measure. The tests don't take into account outside factors like poverty, so educators in more disadvantaged school districts have to work that much harder to get their students up to grade level. I am in no way excusing the educators who cheated on the standardized tests, but doesn't it say something about this era of high-stakes testing that they felt like they had to cheat? 

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