There has been plenty of hand-wringing over the current emphasis (okay, infatuation) with high-stakes testing. Teachers have complained that they feel forced to “teach to the test.” Educators have pointed out that subjects not being tested–art, music, civics–get short shrift, despite their undeniable value.
Less often noted is the incentive to “game the system”–the temptation of school administrators faced with less than satisfactory test results to fudge the numbers. To cheat.
This week, the Superintendent of Schools in El Paso, Texas, was sentenced for just such behavior. According to news reports,
One charge stems from García directing six unindicted co-conspirators and others to fraudulently inflate student test scores so struggling schools would appear to meet federal accountability standards, which are based on 10th-grade state standardized exams.
The scheme involved school district employees changing grades from passing to failing to keep some students in ninth grade, holding Mexican transfer students in ninth grade regardless of their transcripts and implementing credit-recovery programs so intentionally retained students could catch up to their appropriate grade and graduate on time.
García received $54,000 in bonuses that were stipulated in his contract if the district did well on state and federal accountability standards.
Most school officials, of course, don’t engage in such blatant law-breaking. Instead, they spin results. They play games calculated to make their performance look better. Here in Marion County, Dr. White’s administration has been particularly generous with so-called “waivers” that allow students to graduate without passing the mandatory tests; the administration has also seen a mysterious increase in students purportedly leaving the system to be “home schooled,” and thus not counted as drop-outs.
If we really are intent upon reforming the nation’s public schools, we need to revisit some foundational questions. What are the skills and attitudes we want our schools to provide? What can be measured by testing and what can’t? How should test results be used in assessing teacher performance? What safeguards do we need to put in place to insure that Superintendents and others aren’t gaming the system? How do we create rewards for good performance and honest reporting, and avoid providing perverse incentives that encourage cheating?
And perhaps the hardest question of all: how do we shift our resources and emphasis back to the all-important classroom and hardworking, dedicated teachers, and away from the bureaucrats concerned mainly with protecting their turf?
In an ideal world, non-teacher school system employees would see themselves as support staff, there to provide classroom teachers with resources and services they need in order to do the important job of actual instruction. Superintendents would not see themselves as important executives entitled to big bonuses when those teachers do well, but as ombudsmen of a sort, encouraging and enabling classroom success.
Someone needs to remind these guys they aren’t bankers.