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Cheating on the Test -- I May Be Guilty Also!

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I confess, I may be guilty of helping students improve their scores on standardized tests. Just last week I was helping my eight-year old grandchildren, third-graders scheduled to take the new common core based tests, with their math homework. When they were finished, I asked Gideon and Sadia if they had checked their work. Now Sadia values accuracy, so when she said she checked her work I just initialed it. But Gideon values speed over accuracy and even though he said he had checked his work, I thought it advisable to take a closer look at it. Of course I found a couple of careless errors. I gave it back to him and told him he had to check his work again -- which he knew meant he had made mistakes.

If these homework assignments are factored into their grades for the school year, Gideon, who ultimately got the questions right on his own, will get "inflated" grades because of the help he received at home. I guess in the new world of high-stakes testing even for the youngest children that makes me a cheater, but I thought as a grandparent, I was supposed to help them with their homework.

I am writing this blog because justified accusations about changing student answers on standardized tests in Atlanta, Georgia have become a witch hunt and all teachers are now considered suspect of cheating. In Glen Cove, New York, a dozen teachers from two elementary schools are being investigated and face disciplinary action for such nebulous infractions as "violating test protocol and not following the proscribed guidance in the testing manuals" during the spring 2012 elementary school reading and math tests.

I want to see hard evidence of cheating before these teachers or any teachers are charged with unprofessional conduct or criminal behavior. What happens during witch hunts, in Salem Village at the end of the 17th century and in the McCarthy Red Scare of the 1950s is that innocent people end up confessing to things they did not do and naming others, either because they begin to doubt themselves under pressure or because they want to strike a deal that will save their lives and career. We do not need this to happen again.

I have proctored tests for 40 years and I have no idea what the test protocol is nor have I ever checked a manual for the proscribed guidance. Personally, I think I violate the "protocol" and the "manual" every time I check a box saying I read and agree to the conditions on some online application -- because I never really read the pages of fine print. I doubt if anybody does.

I am also writing this blog because the tests themselves are highly suspect but state education departments are not blaming them and the private for-profit companies that develop them. New York State Education Commissioner John King is already warning parents and school officials that student test scores will likely drop this year because the "the bar is being raised" to achieve higher standards.

King and the State Education Department actually prepared a video for parents to explain why the scores would drop as part of the campaign to prepare students for new "higher" common core state standards. The New York Daily News reports that city officials expect tests scores to decline by a whopping 30 percent.

King, of course, was being disingenuous [not telling the complete truth]. Student scores on standardized tests almost always drop when a new test is introduced because the students have not been prepped for the new test with repeated practice tests. It has nothing to do with higher standards. When New York State last changed the tests in 2010, more than half of public school students in New York City failed their English exams and only 54 percent passed math.

Similar declines are anticipated across the country where new tests are being introduced. In Kentucky, where new tests were introduced last year, students scoring "proficient" or better in reading and math dropped by roughly a third or more in both elementary and middle school. Seventy-six percent of elementary students scored proficient or higher in reading in 2010-11, but the percentage plunged to 48 percent in 2011-12.

There are now parents challenging the tests and demanding that their children be exempted from the exams, which is their right as parents. FairTest, the website of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has information for parents on how to both opt out for their own children and how to organize campaigns against the standardized testing movement. There are also anti-testing petitions.

I discussed opting out of the test with Sadia and Gideon's mother. We agreed that at this point it did not make sense for them. They have been prepping for the tests for months with their classmates and even attending Saturday test prep classes organized by their school. We did not think it would be fair to them, or that they would understand, if they were excused from the tests at this point -- but next year may be something else.

I have another confession to make as well. As a high school social studies teacher for 13 years starting in 1978 I taught what I estimate as two thousand students who took the New York State United States history regents examination and maybe an equal number who took the alternative Regents Competency Tests. Before they took these tests we looked at old exams in class and I showed them how to systematically evaluate multiple-choice options and how to write an essay and receive partial credit even if you do not really know the answer.

But worse, at the end of every test, including the Regents and the Regents Competency Tests, when students came up to the front of the room to hand in their papers, I repeated the mantra:

Did you answer all the multiple-choice questions?
Did you check your multiple-choice answers?
Did you write all the essays?
Did you complete all the parts?
Did you proofread and edit?

If a student answered no to any of these questions, I told them to sit back down and finish the test. The best teachers that I know did similar things because we wanted the tests to show what students had actually learned and understood. There were no financial bonuses involved and we were not being evaluated for tenure based on the test scores of our students. This practice was not considered cheating. It was just considered good teaching practice and concern for students. My teachers did the same thing when I was in high school in New York City in the 1960s.

As I wrote earlier, I started teaching high school in 1978. Those students are now in their early fifties. In the name of absolute fairness and test integrity, the New York State Education Department may want to consider suspending their high school diplomas until they retake the exams. After all, their test results might have been tainted by caring teachers.

In fact, teaching itself skews test results. Maybe New York State should just give the tests without any pretense of teaching students at all.