A Trifecta Of Sins


A comprehensive report in late March by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provides strong evidence that adults in as many as 200 school systems have been cheating on their students’ standardized tests.

We looked at this for NewsHour in 2011:

Because I spent three years chronicling the tenure of Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC — another city with a spate of thus-far-unexplained ‘wrong to right’ erasures on standardized tests — I am interested in this story. I’d like to know if anyone cheated in the DC schools. If so, who and why?

But a teacher I correspond with occasionally brought me up short recently. My focus on actual, literal cheating — physically changing answers or giving kids answers in advance — is too narrow, this teacher wrote.

Here’s part of a recent letter:

“While I know that the cheating scandals may be considered important, I’m frankly a bit disappointed that this is the focus because the cheating scandal doesn’t really matter in terms of the students and their futures, which should always be the focus of anything related to education. What matters is the lasting damage that is being done to them as a result of the increased pressures being put on the school system over these tests. The lasting damage is the closing of schools with no thoughts as to the repercussions on the community, the constant rotating principals, the removal of teachers connected with the community, the privatization of public schools and property, the fact that schools budgets are getting slashed while the administrative central office expands and gives money to private contractors in huge quantities that accomplish nothing, the constant lack of knowledge about our future in the schools, the increasing class sizes and removal of resources from our neediest schools, etc. The cheating scandal is next to nothing; that is a product of the testing obsession as a whole, something that Michelle Rhee certainly fed, but it is far from the worst part of her tenure. Those test scores mean nothing about how prepared our children are for their futures–whether or not there was cheating.”

Some think we haven't hit bottom yet.

Supporting her argument that the real issue is preparing kids for their futures is a new report about the arts in our schools, hard data confirming what most reporters have known for a long time: for at least 10 years, the arts have been disappearing from schools populated largely by low-income kids. The report is from the U. S. Department of Education. It tells us that fewer public elementary schools today offer visual arts, dance and drama classes, a decline many attribute to budget cuts and an increased focus on math and reading. Most high schools with large numbers of low income students do not offer music. Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, told reporters that cuts are likely to continue into the next two years because education funding has been slow to pick back up. “We haven’t hit bottom yet,” he said.

In other words, we’re cheating kids on their tests and stealing essential courses like art and music from them! Add to that, we are lying — because when kids get phony scores telling them they are proficient when they need help, that’s an out-and-out lie.

At what point does this trifecta — lying, cheating and stealing — become a felony? Seriously!

In the face of this disheartening news, one has to ask, “who benefits?” I’m stumped. Certainly not children, parents and teachers. Could it be the testing companies? Perhaps it’s the bevy of expert ‘consultants’ who advise school systems on how to raise test scores, how to calculate the ‘value added’ that individual teachers provide, and how to make education more ‘businesslike’ and efficient?

A far more important question than ‘who benefits?’ is: What are we going to do about it?

18 thoughts on “A Trifecta Of Sins

  1. John,
    What we *ought* to do is realize we will not improve the experience our children have in schools by creating better standards, making them national, and creating more and more tests to measure learning. We have gone so far overboard on this misguided belief, that it has become unquestionable.

    A few weeks ago when I responded to the Scared Sleepless piece you posted, and pointed out the false reassurance being offered by “multiple measures,” you responded:

    “we must have multiple measures. What they will be is to be decided, but no one can turn his back on accountability and assessment.”

    We must create a new contract for accountability, one that honors and respects the commitment teachers make to work in the best interests of their students, and does not pretend that test scores are an adequate means for appraising a teacher’s work. Until that fundamental challenge has been met, and so long as we allow test scores to drive reform, we will continue to see our children cheated, all in the name of accountability.


  2. Isn’t it obvious? How many years of efforts to reform school have brought us to where we are now? Things aren’t getting better. Who benefits from those who believe that we must not abandon the current paradigm because we think that some day in the distant future we will have refined the model such that fewer people have dramatically unsuccessful outcomes? Even if that unfounded optimism were true, look at all the kids who will suffer in the meantime. I think the reformers are the biggest obstacle to children attaining education because they are the guardians of the myth of autocratic schooling.


  3. I think the answer to who benefits is perhaps well illustrated by the Article in today’s NYT, which details the collaboration between Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein (now one of Rupert Murdoch’s advisers) to profit from the privatization of the public schools, meanwhile framing teachers – and their unions – as obstacles to education.



  4. Who benefits? The politicians. They have to do something obvious so they can say they did something. Who is at fault? We are – the voters and communities. Education is complicated. It involves dealing with a multitude of student needs and family situations. Politicians and voters need to recognize that education is everyone’s responsibility – students, parents, teachers, even neighbors who don’t have children. (One of the most educational experiences of my life was to go over to my older neighbor when I was less than 10 years old and listen to his stories about growing up in Germany before World War II.)

    Testing is not bad, it’s just that good testing is complicated. Testing should involve writing, thinking, and real problem solving – not filling in bubbles. This would be more expensive which would require less testing – yea! As a society we need to recognize that education is a team effort. If your neighbor’s kid can’t read, what are you doing about it?


  5. I wish more people would express their opinions about education as Ruth does: clearly, simply, without name calling or meaningless jargon.

    She’s absolutely right. If there’s something wrong in public schools, then it’s the public’s fault.


  6. To even think that cheating is at the top of the list of sins committed by the standardized testing fetish is to look at the schools through the eyes of “adult interest,” and overlook the damge done to kids. This data-driven “reform” movement also failed to look at schools from a mother’s perspective. What parent would support a reform that benefits one of her kids (probably through providing a charter school) while humiliating and robbing her other child of a chance at well-rounded education.

    People who did not anticipate that harm would be done did not have enough experience in schools, especially the low income schools that they most wanted to help, did not know and love enough urban kids, and did not listen to students.

    The first debate should not be over the best reforms. It should be over the inherent harm of high-stakes standardized testing, and how to get it away from our kids. Then adults can argue over who has other, better reforms. Ialso agree with Anthony over “multiple measures,” but again, job #1 is ending the damage done by bubble-in, high-stress testing, and we can agree or disagree over those many second tier issues.


    • Our teacher correspondent asks “who benefits” from this misguided perversion of purpose. Certainly we must include corporations and individuals who make a profit from instructional materials and tests. Then, we must include those whose ideological vision of society is based on corporate models of providing for the commonwealth. Politicians have found the topic to now be worth self-interested attention.

      Then, we must include those whose help is the most vital of all. The ones who give substance and drive to the movement — the media and commentators.

      Who loses? Teachers and children. Particularly the poor children.


  7. John,
    When you asked who benefits at the end, you started a good list. You also asked a very good question, “What are we going to do about it?” You speaking out is a start, albeit a small one.

    The profiteers need to be called out. The old adage of follow the money is still apt here. The big push for on-line or digital learning is evident of it. The investment needs to be made in the places where it will make a difference. We have seen the evidence from other countries how it can work. It is ignored here in the United States.

    We ignore the some of the major causes of children struggling in school, namely poverty and lack of parental involvement in their live. Instead we insist on more accountability through faulty measures and drive more and more dedicated educators out of the profession or discourage them from entering it in the first place.


  8. Your bleak prospect gets bleaker at the end of that really sad article on Michelle Ree’s alliance with Joel Klein and … Geoff Canada (of all allies!). Just below the Times article was an ad for “Stand for Children,” which used to be a rather benign and well intended group to influence and enhance children’s services. It has has now re-framed itself against Teachers Unions in Massachusetts. Ironically, both Ree, Klein, Canada and the Massachusetts “progressives” are tilting at windmills. It’s not a matter of a union as much as it is a matter of creating a culture that recognizes individuals – both students and teachers. As Murdoch and Duncan (another very strange alliance) focus on privatizing – or Chartering – public education, and rationalize their failure under rubrics of parental choice, the common experience to which Horace Mann aspired and which best represents the multiculturalism of America gets lost.

    Fortunately, with 50 states and thousands of schools, nothing will work the same everywhere, and this phase will, hopefully soon, pass.

    I still think the lynchpin of reform is assessment – and its use as feedback to learners, teachers, classes, schools, districts, and states. What is this whole debate ignores is that feedback is only a part of assessment. The reality is that unless learners assess themselves, and are rewarded and celebrated for their discoveries of strength, the entire superstructure collapses. When tests lead to scores months after testing, those tests de-value instruction to justify politics like NCLB. The cost to children and students at all levels is charged against their future, while bureaucrats, politicians and entrepreneurs manipulate data to produce justifications – much like they did on Wall Street. When aggregations by class, school, or district become the critical measure, those same tests initially framed to measure children’s growth and inform parents and teachers how to improve that growth, lose all their value.

    Assessment is far more than testing – as the growing movement for ePortfolios so well proves. Yet a portfolio is just a file (whether electronic or paper), and unless that assessment has some comparable form, structure and scaffold, to allow comparisons (not invidious competition, but collaborative and reinforcing comparisons) over time and across kids, subjects and schools, those files have little more value than a six month old test score. Their meaning is precisely (and exclusively) what they contain, and comparability is critical. That’s why I first started reading this blog – your sponsorship of Arnold Packer’s “Verified Resume” is expresses better than any other metric how children transform into responsible, collaborative, and curious adults. So, why are we not promoting our strength rather than wring hands – or necks, or each other – about our failures?


    • Thank you, Joe. Arnie is working hard to get the Obama Administration to at least take a look at the Verified Resume, which Arnie and some of my colleagues developed here at Learning Matters, with remarkable support from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. I believe it, or something very much like it, has the legs needed to survive and prosper.


  9. Anyone in the education business who ends up wealthy has no business being in education. Yet, the present reform movement is all about money, lots of it; to the testing companies, to the CEOs of nonprofits, the CEOs of for profit charters, to the superintendents, to their assistants, their staff, and to the policy writers. And don’t forget the corruption at the top of the unions.

    The losers are the children and the rank and file teachers.


  10. ‘What are we going to do about it?’

    For starters, you could read this account of how the most effective teaching method ever devised has been shut out of the education system for 40 years, with devastating consequences, especially for at-risk children:

    Click to access CT_111811.pdf


    See especially Chapters VI-VIII.

    Then you could visit some of the high-poverty schools that use the method and see how well they are teaching the arts, and how much better the kids are actually mastering the arts because they’ve also been taught how to read:

    Click to access DI_Resources.pdf

    Visit especially City Springs Elementary in inner-city Baltimore if you haven’t already. Or the Gering district in rural Nebraska.

    Finally you could forward the links above to the teacher who wrote to you and encourage her and others to learn more about the method.

    Educators cheat on tests because they don’t know how to teach any but the easier-to-teach kids what all kids need to learn so that they can do well on the tests. In their desperation, they narrow the curriculum, but to no avail. The public has grown alarmed at the education system’s chronic inadequacies, but it doesn’t know how to fix them either, so it imposes clumsy tests that give it some vague and misleading information about the system’s performance but give the system itself no technical guidance whatsoever about how to become more effective at teaching. Meanwhile, the system continues to shun effective teaching methods that conflict with its vague, romantic theories about how learning occurs. (Think of medicine in the 16th Century.)

    Education schools with their wrongheaded theories are the root of the weed. To blame testing is to hack at the leaves.


    • Mr. Barbash repeats a now near 50 year old lie — that this DI program teaches children to read. I’ll simply suggest that anyone interested in the truth about Englemann’s product simply visit the federal What Works Clearinghouse which notes that not a single reliable research study has ever shown that this DI products improves children’s reading abilities. The truly unfortunate aspects of this saga is that far too many school officials fall for the sales presentation and buy this product and then continue to blame the children or their teachers for the continuing bad results.


  11. I just got a breath of fresh air at the International Democratic Education Conference in Puerto Rico. At the same time as children and teachers are being thrown under a school bus full of education profiteers and fear mongers, those who have been relegated to the fringes (because they trust children, and won’t reduce them to fit into someone else’s idea of what is most important) are doing fantastic things. One example is Puerto Rico’s Nuestra Escuela, working with a population others have discarded. Walking into that spunky little school and talking with bright happy students is a joy. I agree it is important to point out that the emperor is strolling around in the buff, but now lets get on with it, and point out what works, and who is brave enough to buck the system to let children prosper.


  12. John,

    Once again this sounds like another example of the “dripping water problem.” Cheating on tests is likely only a symptom of the real problem. The real problem is a far more complex, multi-faceted outcome of many underlying conditions — many of which are monetarily and politically related.


  13. John,

    This sounds like another example of the “dripping water problem.” Cheating on the tests is likely only a symptom of the real problem. The real problem is a far more complex, multi-faceted situation created by numerous conditions, most of which are certainly politically and monetarily motivated. Students and teachers should be held accountable for the cheating, but we must not stop there. We need to move on to the real problem.


  14. John the key to the testing problem is this — if a teacher needs a test result to figure who is learning and who isn’t, that teacher should retire. Effective teachers know every moment of every day who knows and who needs help. Every teacher should know the same information for every student, every day. If they don’t know it will be impossible for them ever teach well. We now see schools where kids are tested weekly on tests that measure nothing related to actual reading proficiency (e.g., DIBELS, AIMSweb) but that have a system that can record data on a hand held device which allows data to be downloaded to a computer where wonderful printouts of “growth charts” and “risk patterns” can be printed. Unfortunately, none of this data is useful in planning instruction for improving reading only for improving next weeks’s test scores. At the end of the year what we have is kids with lots of improvement on the test who still cannot actually read. In the meantime whole weeks of instruction have been missed as every kid gets tested every week and few get effective reading lessons.


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