Sunday, April 7, 2013

Reflecting on the testing scandal, now infecting over 30 states in the U.S.

In what has been described as one of the largest cheating scandals to hit the nation's public education system, 35 Atlanta Public Schools educators and administrators were indicted Friday on charges of racketeering and corruption.(from "Grand jury indicts 35 in Georgia school cheating scandal" by Chelsea J. Carter, CNN, March 29, 2013 below)
This story is so layered with ethical issues as to be pregnant with culpability.
First there was "No Child Left Behind" in the early years of the Dubya presidency, in which test scores to demonstrate the "achievement" levels of individual schools, and thereby individual teachers were to be judged. Then there was the "Race to the Top" program under the Obama administration, to put an even finer point on the race to the top, in global competition in reading, science and math skills.
Both initiatives are based on a faulty premise: that education and learning are demonstrated by the reduction of the program to "skills" transferal and repetition, and that multiple choice testing in those skills represents the best method to determine "where the child (and teacher, and school ) ranks in comparison to others.
Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater here.
We are not opposed to the transferal of skills, behaviours that can be demonstrated: playing the piano, writing a sentence, computing a math function, conducting a science experiment and recording and reporting the results of that experiment....these are all worthy "skills" to be transferred, and the tests to demonstrate the degree to which they have been transferred are one way to demonstrate in a society driven exclusively by empiricism, that something worthwhile is occurring.
Accountants, lawyers, and even scientists are committed to some form of objective presentation of reality in balance sheets, in testimony on the what one saw and heard, and on replicable experiments conducted by others, peers, to verify the validity of those experiments, and thereby contributing to the body of knowledge shared by those not conducting those experiments, but whose lives may be directly impacted by the findings.
Educators, as more mirrors than lamps in any culture (primarily because the enterprise has been so relegated to the "fringe" of soft skills and human development that does not really constitute an integral component of important public policy) tend to follow the dictates of their political masters, who, in turn, are increasingly dependent on the production of "empirical data" that they policies are "working".
We do not listen to the New York Philharmonic's performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and judge the first violinist as compared to the first violinist in the London Philharmonic, nor the first french horn. We are more interested in the "impact" on our subjective selves... "did the performance move us?" or ...did it leave us tired and detached?
To be sure, there were hundreds, if not thousands of hours of lessons, rehearsals, performances and criticisms from substantial and credentialled examiners whose insights have shaped those performers who sit in those chairs. Much of that experience contained both objective observations (did the student play the correct notes, using the written rhythms and the appropriate dynamics, using fingering that provided both flow and ease of movement, especially in the most difficult passages?) as well as subjective and interpretative observations, suggestions, recommendations and even evaluations. The marks were always divided between the objective "skills" portion of the critique and the interpretive, subjective musicality portion of the critique.
Conversely, in the elementary, secondary and post-secondary school systems, many of the evaluations have been reduced to the first component, the objective, including the devious and deceptive "bubbling-in" method of testing, by requiring the candidate to select one from four or five answer responses, often designed to throw a curve at the candidates thinking, demonstrating more of the capacity of the examination instructor's capacity to trick, than the student's capacity to learn.
Far too rarely are students being asked to write even the most basic expository essay, to persuade, and even more rarely to write a creative piece to inspire a reader and to permit the "scholarly" development of the imagination, as an integral and significant component of the student's learning.
Teachers, like doctors fear the push-back of a society that demands "instant gratification" from its schools, both publicly and privately funded, in the forms of political demands of removals, reputation craterings, and behind both groups fears are the lawyers and the court rooms where the society has decided its public policy must be arbitrated.
Family physicians have, for the most part, long since desisted from delivering babies for the mothers in their practice, because of the fear of law suits and the high cost of insurance. Oby-Gyn specialists now do that work, almost exclusively.
Who will replace the teachers, whose training and whose experience has traditionally been more oriented to the general education, and to an appreciation of the conditions under which each student operates when outside the school walls, factors that directly impact his/her academic performance and potential? The police? The lawyers? The politicians? or the "doctoral graduates in education whose speciality is in interpreting reliable scientific data, not human responses to challenges along the road to discovering new insights, new theorems, and new calculations.
And who will come to the defence of the students and their parents whose needs are not, and cannot be met, by a testing system so steeped in faulty and incentivizing parameters that professional educators careers can be sacrificed to the idol of bonuses and performance rewards pushing those educators to twist and contort and deform both the truth of the student responses and the trajectory of their professional careers.
We have so corporatized and commodified the society, in the interests of placating the "right" that we have effectively distorted and may even have destroyed the pursuit of subjective talents, interests and their legitimacy in the learning curve of our young children, for the specious purpose of proving that public funds have been "successful" in achieving the goals of "achievement" in learning, as if our children were so many widgets running off the end of a production line, to be marketed to the gllobalized market of "skills" in competition with the millions of engineering graduates emerging from universities in China, Singapore and Asia.
And in the process, we have also lost sight of the potential "awe" in the learning experience for both the teacher and the student whose full development the educational enterprise was one charged with fulfilling...and in the process we have so contaminated the process, through obviously counter-intuitive structure, incentives and rewards, reducing even the professionals to automatons, the last instruments that can be expected to achieve the goals and objectives of a legitimate educational enterprise.
No wonder we are running the educational enterprise into the ground!

Grand jury indicts 35 in Georgia school cheating scandal
By Chelsea J. Carter, CNN, March 29, 2013
Atlanta (CNN) -- In what has been described as one of the largest cheating scandals to hit the nation's public education system, 35 Atlanta Public Schools educators and administrators were indicted Friday on charges of racketeering and corruption.

The indictment is the bookend to a story that was once touted as a model for the nation's school districts after the district's test scores dramatically improved in some of its toughest urban schools.
Among those indicted by a Fulton County, Georgia, grand jury was Beverly Hall, the former schools superintendent who gained national recognition in 2009 for turning around Atlanta's school system.
"She was a full participant in that conspiracy," Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard told reporters during a news conference announcing the charges.
"Without her, this conspiracy could not have taken place, particularly in the degree in which it took place."
The indictment follows a state investigation that was launched after a series of reports by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper found large, unexplained gains in test scores in some Atlanta schools.
A state review determined that some cheating had occurred in more than half of the district's elementary and middle schools. About 180 teachers were initially implicated in the scandal.
2011: Quit or be fired, educators implicated in Atlanta scandal told
Threats and intimidation
Hall has denied any role in the cheating scandal. In 2011, she told The New York Times that her subordinates had allowed the cheating to occur, but denied she was involved.
Hall resigned from her position in 2011 following the state investigation, which lambasted her leadership and found widespread cheating in dozens of Atlanta schools.
The alleged cheating is believed to date back to early 2001, according to the indictment, when standardized testing scores began to turn around in the 50,000-student school district.
For at least a period of four years, between 2005 and 2009, test answers were altered, fabricated and falsely certified, the indictment said.
Hall allegedly oversaw a system where threats and intimidation were used against teachers, it said.
"As a result, cheating became more and more prevalent," the indictment said.
By the time the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, as the standardized test is known, was administered in Atlanta Public Schools, "cheating was taking place in a majority of APS's 83 elementary and middle schools."
Report: Test cheating may be widespread
The allegations, the indictment said, are substantiated by the Georgia Governor's Office of Student Achievement analysis of erasures on standardized tests.
'Suspicious' test score gains
According to the indictment, Hall placed unreasonable goals on educators and "protected and rewarded those who achieved targets by cheating. It also alleges she fired principals who failed to achieve goals and "ignored suspicious" test score gains throughout the school system.
In 2009, Hall was named the National Superintendent of the Year by the Schools Superintendents Association, which at the time said her "leadership has turned Atlanta into a model of urban school reform."
But the indictment paints another picture of Hall, one of a superintendent with "a single-minded purpose, and that is to cheat," Howard told reporters.
"For example, teachers who reported other teachers who cheated were terminated, while teachers who were caught cheating were only suspended," the indictment alleges.
"The message from Beverly Hall was clear: There were to be no exceptions and no excuses for failure to meet targets."
At the heart of the conspiracy to cheat, the indictment said, was money.
"It is further part of the conspiracy and endeavor that targets achieved through cheating were used by Beverly Hall to obtain substantial performance bonuses," the indictment said.
It also alleges a number of others received performance bonuses based on test scores.

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