The Washington Post

Easing test pressure won’t save kids

Who is to blame for tampering with tests in Atlanta and Baltimore? Why are there so many suspicious testing irregularities in Washington, Philadelphia and other cities? From what I have read in blogs, columns and official statements, the verdict is in. Cheating, wherever it occurred, was caused by too much pressure on principals and teachers to raise student achievement.

Georgia state investigators said that answer sheets were illegally changed in Atlanta because “the targets set by the district were often unreasonable, especially given their cumulative effect over the years. Additionally, the administration put unreasonable pressure on teachers and principals to achieve targets.”

In an opinion piece in USA Today, Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said: “When test results are all that matter in evaluating students, teachers and schools, educators feel pressured to boost scores by hook or by crook. Just as in other professions, some will cross the ethical line.”

I have great respect for Schaeffer and the Georgia investigators. But I have trouble squaring with reality their conclusion that the fault was too much test pressure and that our schools will work better once we dial that down.

We are trying, as a country, to raise achievement so that when students graduate from high school they will have the reading, writing, math and time-management skills that will allow them to do well in the workplace or college. How do we do that without motivating them and their teachers to do the work necessary to achieve those goals?

The kids who had their test answers changed were mostly poor, but I can cite incidents of cheating in all kinds of neighborhoods. Educators signaled answers to students. Students got test questions in advance. What’s odd is that in few of those cases can I recall much public comment that too much pressure had been put on those students and educators to succeed.

Why is that? I think it is because nearly everyone who has ever had to complete a difficult assignment knows that some motivating pressure is part of the process. Without it, work does not get done. It may be the goad of a watchful parent, a short deadline, an extra load of work or a simple inbred desire to do the right thing. But the pressure is there.

If the latest cheating in urban schools was caused by pressure to reach academic targets, then why didn’t every educator in those districts take illegal and unethical shortcuts? Why did many principals and teachers carve out more time for instruction? Why did so many do their honest best to raise achievement, knowing that if that hurt them, they didn’t really want a job where only test scores counted anyway?

Indeed, where is it that, as Schaeffer says, “test results are all that matter in evaluating students, teachers and schools”? I don’t know of any teacher evaluation systems that depend solely on test scores. Letter grades still have far more impact on student promotion than state tests. The federal No Child Left Behind law does evaluate schools by scores, but it is nearly dead and mostly ignored.

School administrators and teachers who changed answers did something worse than cheating. They lost faith in the ability of their students to learn.

We can motivate in different ways. I favor experimenting with school inspections, as the English do. Portfolios or oral exams might be better than multiple choice questions.

But teachers and students, like all of us, must learn how to deal with some forms of pressure. Reducing stress in the either/or dynamic of public schools can lead to eliminating it altogether, which is bad. If we don’t have a chance to fail, no one will know that we need help. We won’t be able to improve.

Then we will be back where we were before, patting some kids on the head, deciding they weren’t up to anything tough and passing them on to the next grade until they are fit for nothing better than the unemployment line.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.


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