Cheaters

Fixing the education system.
Sept. 22 2008 10:42 AM

Cheaters

One potential problem with basing teacher compensation in part on test scores is that it gives teachers an incentive not just to "teach to the test," but to game the test completely. Because of strict accountability measures imposed in Texas in the 1990s by then-Gov. George W. Bush and Rod Paige, the Houston school superintendent, test scores rose sharply. A few years later, after the governor had become the president and the superintendent had become the federal secretary of education, the Dallas Morning News , in a series of investigative articles , revealed that at least part of those test-score gains were due to widespread cheating by teachers and administrators.

I don't want to overstate the prevalence or the impact of cheating on standardized tests—I think accountability measures are crucial, and I believe a well-run school system can find ways to all but eliminate cheating. But still, I thought I should share this story, which a reader of this blog, a young teacher in the New York City public schools, e-mailed to me recently:

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I'm writing in response to your column on paying teachers more money for raising their students' test scores from the year before. When I first heard this proposal, a couple of years ago, I was excited. That should be a decent measure of a teacher's efficacy, I thought.

Until I got my class last year. As sixth graders, they were all new to my school and came from different elementary schools. And when it came to the test, every single one of them, without fail, had the same story.

During our first standardized test of the year, many hands went in the air. I shook my head at them, because according to the rules, I'm not allowed to talk to them during a test. They were outraged. "Why can't you help us?" they asked.

We had a class discussion after the exam was over. Every single one of them had received help on state standardized tests in their old school. For some of them, the teacher would explain the questions when they didn't understand something. Several students had teachers give them the correct answer. One of my students saw a teacher sit down with another student's test, erase all of his answers, and write all new ones in.

If there are bonuses tied to test scores, even more cheating will take place. What can school districts do to ensure this doesn't happen?

It's a good question, without a simple answer. I do think school systems have the tools to stop cheating. But it's hard to do without first acknowledging that it's a problem. And superintendents (and mayors) have the same accountability pressures that principals and teachers and students do. Whatever level of the bureaucracy you inhabit, when your success depends on rising scores, it's hard to take steps that will serve only to lower those scores—whether that means blowing the whistle on a fellow teacher or launching an investigation of the whole system.

Paul Tough is the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a speaker on various topics including education, poverty, parenting, and politics.

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