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Educating for Democracy: How Much Cheating Is Going on in the Public Schools?

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A recent report in the New York Times (6/10/2010) titled "Teachers Tamper With Test Scores" illustrates the dilemma teachers and school officials are facing whenever they have to give their students standardized tests. The Times article observes:

"Experts say the phenomenon [of cheating on test scores] is increasing as the stakes over standardized testing ratchet higher--including, most recently, taking student progress on tests into consideration in teachers' performance reviews."

An example cited is a recent law passed in Colorado "making teachers' tenure dependent on test results." Teacher bonuses are also linked to test scores, guaranteeing that, according to a sociological term, "Campbell's Law":

"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor"

(Quoted in Diane Ravitch, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," p. 160). I have quoted this "law" in an earlier column but I wish it were printed in big, bold letters on a placard on the desks of every school official and "tester" involved in this misguided attempt to "improve" the learning of young people in this country by corrupting the personal integrity of teachers and administrators in our schools, not to mention students, by using a misleading and ultimately counter-productive measure of "learning improvement."


It seems, however, that those officials in the Administration, state houses, and school boards who must be aware of the damage that standardized test mania is having on our schools are either deaf to the criticisms being made or are, as I suspect they must be, willing to write off the overwhelming majority of future generations of Americans to second-class citizenship by giving them a second-class education. The Bloomberg Administration's governing of the New York City schools does nothing positive to deal with this problem by punishing and threatening to punish schools with closings which haven't made "satisfactory progress" in these tests.

Educators face the fact that many students, especially from neighborhoods that are troubled with high unemployment, socially dysfunctional families, and high crime rates, are often not as "willing learners" as one would wish them to be. What can be done to make them engaged in learning requires a great deal of effort, resources and ingenuity; but the emphasis on testing distracts even the most skillful teachers from working with these students effectively. There is no doubt that unwilling learners are a disruptive factor in any classroom environment: but emphasis on testing as it is being conducted alienates them even further.

One of the major attractions of charter schools for minority parents is that the schools are run in an "orderly fashion" compared to the district schools from which they've taken their children. Much of this, I believe, is due to the policies charter schools have that will "counsel out" the most troubled students from these schools who are then put them back in the regular public schools. But even then, the test scores that are being used to measure learning in charter schools are not much different from those at other public schools. This is because, I believe, there is a fundamental flaw in using this method of measuring learning and until it is addressed, no matter what scores the students produce, when they get into college, many of them will discover that they are considerably behind in knowledge and skills they need in order to do college-level work.

In an article I wrote for the Huffington Post several months ago -- "How Tests 'Fail'" (2/12//2010) -- I enumerated the standards I would use to determine whether or not a young learner was being properly educated. I believe they bear repeating:

1. Do students understand what they are learning? That is, do they know the significance of the information or formulas, or dates and places that they are required to know so that they feel it is important to spend the time and effort to really learn them?

2. Are students able to retain what they have learned from one semester to the next? All too often valuable class time is spent "reviewing" what students should already know from several weeks before even if they performed adequately on their exams from the previous semester.

3. Are students able to apply what they have previously learned to new and different ideas, subjects and situations? That is, if they have understood and retained the material they were supposedly taught, can they employ it towhat is known as "critical thinking?" Of course, if students haven't mastered the material they were supposed to learn, there is nothing for them to "think about critically."

4. Finally, are students able to innovate and come up with new ideas, approaches to cultural issues, interpretations of literature, or scientific and mathematical thinking?

The nature of the test prep drilling, emphasis on these so-called "indicators" of learning, and the time spent on them to the intellectual impoverishment of students who are given inadequate time for other subjects such as history, literature, the arts and global studies "cheat" young learners of the education they need in order to be well informed, well functioning and active citizens of our society. I would challenge any school official to show the general public how the present system promotes any of the criteria I've enumerated which, I strongly believe, are essential for good learning.

But there are students in the New York City schools who are being taught in such a way to fulfill these criteria: they are the ones who go to the best-run and most progressive charter schools, the private schools, and the "elite" public schools and they represent a tiny fraction of NYC students. If only the Mayor and Chancellor would understand that "the process of learning is not a business," perhaps they will realize that it isn't only test scores that are encouraging "cheating" in our public schools, but students are being "cheated" from learning those things that will enable them to be productive, well-informed citizens and, most important, "life-long learners."