testingThis past week the National Center for Education Statistics released a report that may have been a shocker for people outside of the education industry:  when it comes to student achievement, many of our states are cheating!  Or at the very least, they are cheating their kids.

According to an article in Education Week, their results suggest that between 2005 and 2007, various states made their standards less rigorous in one or more grade levels or subjects in at least 26 instances.

“I think as 2014 looms, … clearly what a lot of states are doing is changing the bar so that a lot more students will become proficient,” said Mark S. Schneider, who served as the NCES commissioner from 2005 to November 2008.


What do you expect from high stakes tests that threaten people’s jobs and their professional reputations? When you have put so much stock in leveraging improvement trends on standards-based tests… you invite otherwise well-meaning people to cheat.  So politicians who run on a promise to “improve public schools” and “raise the test scores’ and “close the achievement gap” will do what politicians do to stay in office.  And by lowering the bar in places like New York, you can create the illusion that more students are getting to grade level on your watch.  Even if they aren’t.

The states are free to establish their own standards and select their own tests to determine who has mastered those standards.  And they are free to define “Proficient” for their own students.  The lower the bar is set, the more students will test at “Proficient”.  And when you compare the students in states where the bar has been lowered to the students in California– if you don’t know those states are gaming the system– you will conclude that California’s public schools are inferior.

This is happening because there are no national standards or definitions or assessments required by NCLB.  It is a loophole for any states that choose to use it.  And how do we know that so many states are sand-bagging their kids?  All you have to do is look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an optional national test that assesses kids in 4th and 8th grade.

In 4th grade reading, for example, the federal study found that 31 states set proficiency scores that were lower than the cutoff for “basic” performance on NAEP. At the 8th grade level, 15 states set standards judged to be lower than the basic level on the national assessment for that grade.

The Northwest Evaluation Association has been reporting on this phenomenon for several years.  They too maintain that it is just easier to demonstrate proficiency in some states than it is in others– like California.

So the pressure gets turned up in California… from the top down.  And what happens?  Schools stretch to get their kids to those higher, more stringent levels of achievement– by any means necessary. And yes… they cheat.

One of California’ most celebrated charter schools is unapologetic in their methods.  They, in effect, have replaced their curriculum with the California Standards Test. They teach the test.  Every day.  And they hand-pick their students and eliminate those who don’t keep up with the daily rigors of “drill and kill”– the doctrine of test preparation.  The result? They are one of the highest performing schools in the entire state with an Academic Performance Index of 967!  The governor sings their praises because they demonstrate that getting all of your students to grade level can be done.

govBut the California Department of Education (over which the Governor presides)  forbids the practice of test preparation.  Regarding advance preparation for state tests, the California Code of Regulations, Title 5, Section 854 (a) states:

Except for materials specifically included within the designated achievement test, no program or materials shall be used by any school district or employee of a school district that are specifically formulated or intended to prepare pupils for the designated achievement test. No administration or use of an alternate or parallel form of the designated test for any stated purpose shall be permitted for any pupils in grades 2 through 11, inclusive.

So they are cheating!  At least in spirit. But even worse, they have stripped the curriculum and the school of the real things that matter: the 21st century skills, the arts, technology.

And not to pick on one school, this practice is rampant in the state.  Teachers, by necessity, must provide daily test prep in one form or another to meet the accelerating expectations on the federal law, and their Governor, and their school boards.  And they must focus on the narrow scope of standards that are tested– especially language arts and math.

So they are all cheating their kids.  And one day soon, they will realize that for their collective zeal to game (or survive) a very flawed testing scheme… our students will pay.

our kids


Filed under charter schools, public education, school reform, standardized testing

3 responses to “CHEATING OUR KIDS

  1. Except for materials specifically included within the designated achievement test, no program or materials shall be used by any school district or employee of a school district that are specifically formulated or intended to prepare pupils for the designated achievement test. No administration or use of an alternate or parallel form of the designated test for any stated purpose shall be permitted for any pupils in grades 2 through 11, inclusive.

    In some senses we are all teaching to a test if we are purposeful. In the old days, there was latitude for incidental learning and collateral learning that followed student interests, but we all teach to some student learning outcome. That being the case, we must teach the test or the test must reflect what has been taught. I am tired of the purposefully obscure test content offered to students. “If I told you the questions on the test you wouldn’t study the rest.” Exactly; the traditional way was to make students study 100% of the content and test them on perhaps 20%. Mastery of the 20% supposedly correlates with mastery of the other 80%. This is dishonest I think. If there is an all-important state test, then the students have a right to know the specific learning outcomes they should be able to demonstrate.

    Here in Saskatchewan we administer a pretest that mirrors the writing, reading or math assessment. You can find it on line. We examine the results and focus on the areas the students have not yet mastered. When the final assessment comes, the structure and content of the test is familiar. Students demonstrate the particular outcome.

    Is the test a valid measure of student learning? That is a very good question we must all address.

  2. Alan– You said:
    “we are all teaching to a test if we are purposeful.” Well put. Actually I have always tried to think of it as teaching what is tested. And I don’t have a problem with that. Isn’t that what law school is? My deal is I just don’t like states sand bagging and then my state and my school getting hammered in the national comparison games. And I don’t like schools that are all about test prep… they are raising test scores… we are raising children!

  3. They are raising test scores… we are raising children!

    Very true; within the classroom we are now adamant that students should not be subject to comparisons with peers. Parents asking how their child’s 84% compares with the class average are discouraged. The child’s assessment is measured against benchmarks, not peers. People are consumed with statistical results. Standardized assessments for learning make us all connoisseurs of spreadsheets and colorful graphs.

    I read once that politics enters when two or more are gathered. That is why teachers and administrators find that so much of the enterprise of public education seems mired in negotiating social relationships and balancing needs and wants. Naturally testing becomes implicated in local, departmental and national politics. As soon as it does, it become suspect.

    At fifteen, I followed my parents from Madison, Wisconsin to Regina, Saskatchewan. I was immediately confused by a change in the grading scale that seemed to lower the academic standard: D-50%, C-60%, B-70%, A-80%. As a student I was foolishly thinking in terms of benchmarks. It took me a while to understand the numbers were subjective measures. As a teacher, I later stupefied my senior students with explanations of the Ministry grading policy. If you got a 50% on the final exam it was to be lifted to a 51% to differentiate it from a grade that had been raised from 46%. By policy as student could not be given a grade between 45% and 49%. Either lift it of lower it. There are also 6 floating points that can be applied to any single grade in order to assist graduation: politics at work (and also compassion). In those days it would have been worth my job to make an illicit photocopy of the sacred departmental examination (fifty multiple choice questions — easier to mark). I did of course and the principal winked at it because everyone wanted to improve the scores. I think that illustrates your point.

    There are 159 818 school-age children enrolled in Saskatchewan schools this year. That is comparable to many urban school districts and by no means a large number. There are differing priorities among the diverse school divisions. Mine seems consumed with the mechanics of accounting for student learning outcomes. Teacher teams are busy ‘unpacking’ curricular benchmarks into specific learning outcomes. Apparently the Ministry has no resources (or inclination) to do this and other school divisions see other educational priorities. I moved this year from an ethnically diverse community school to a more homogeneous suburban school. Students at my new school have far more material resources and greater social capital (is that term still prevalent?). The community school had many priorities beyond meeting provincial benchmarks. It would be staggering to imagine the problems presented in your national testing.

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