Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cheating kids, without cheating?

The third-grade teacher I followed for my book Tested had a good sense of what was going to be on the Maryland School Assessment. The exam, and the benchmark tests designed in its image, didn’t change a whole lot from year to year—there were certain constructs that showed up again and again, and certain questions too. One question she’d come to expect was, “How do you know such-and-such is a poem?” The standard tested was identifying the elements of a poem. We all know that the best way to ingrain an enduring understanding of poetry is to have students not just read poems but to engage with them—especially, to write them. These kids didn’t do that. More than 30 times the teacher had the kids copy some form of this paragraph from the overhead projector: I know this is a poem because it has rhyme, stanzas and rhythm. It has rhyme because sea and free rhyme. It has stanzas because the paragraphs don’t indent. It has rhythm because...

They wrote two poems that year, after testing—acrostics, which, by the way, don’t have rhyme or stanzas or rhythm. This is how all their instruction went that year: A teacher who had years of experience with the state test focused sharply (and effectively!) on exactly what was likely to be on it, used the most direct instruction possible to get them to answer correctly, and didn’t address anything else.

Despite lousy scores every year in the past, despite being at a high-poverty school, 90 percent of her kids passed the state test in reading.

She did not cheat.

USA Today, along with several other Gannett papers, has done a huge investigation identifying test score anomalies in six states and D.C.: big leaps for a group of students that are followed by big drops.
The main point of “Testing the System,” which has more stories coming, is that in many cases anomalies were never investigated. This is important and powerful. It is a good bet there was cheating going on. But not a sure bet.

Mike Feinberg from KIPP said in the first piece that single-year gains might be attributed to “great teaching.” That is true! Or they can be attributed to questionable teaching, as the poetry example shows (and as the teacher herself would tell you; she hated what she was doing, and by the way after she left the gains were not sustained at the same level).

This isn’t to take away from the good journalism done at USA Today. It’s only to point out that there are actions in between cheating and great teaching that can yield fast, big gains, and it’s important that the players involved—district administrators, investigators, journalists—identify them and include them in the conversation.


  1. Well said.

    I've never helped students cheat on a test - despite what I perceived as some encouragement to do so at my first teaching job.

    That said, there were many days of instruction that inspired self-loathing, almost all leading up to test day and involving the type of moments you describe above.

    Thank you for highlighting a serious problem that does cheat kids out of their education and makes both students and teachers dread school.

  2. The series should include an info box with each part quoting Campbell's Law: "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."

  3. Very good point, Linda and well said, Roxanna & Caroline. Tremendous gains in standardized test scores may not mean cheating, but they may well mean questionable teaching and cheating kids out of a rich and meaningful education.

    (Linda - I was sad to hear you're moving on, but good luck! You do great work and your successor will have big shoes to fill.)

  4. Linda, first of all I'd like to say that I think your book "Tested" really captures the miseducation that is going on in schools today. The children in your book did well on the test but they did not really learn the subject matter. If they had been given a totally different test (sight unseen) they likely would not have done well.

    I understand why you say that the third grade teacher did not "cheat." This is because she was free to look at old tests and prepare the children for questions that she knew was on them. However, many testing experts would say that drilling the students on exact items invalidates the test. (This was the position of Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, the professor cited in the USA report.) As you suggest, the third grade teacher intuitively knew that what she was doing was not right and she didn't feel good about it. The students were cheated out of an authentic learning experience. As you make clear in your book, the students received high scores on the test, but this was not reflected in their daily work.

    To me, the word "cheating" can mean changing answers or it can mean drilling the students on exact test items. Both actions invalidate the test, therefore cheating students of the education that they deserve and denying parents, educators and citizens the information that they need to evaluate the quality of schooling.

  5. Was it the "exact item" if it was the same question structure but different poems? With that strict interpretation you could never ask, "What is the author's purpose?" during the course of the school year because you knew that would be on the test, even if the reading passage was different.

  6. When I say "exact items" I am referring to the exact same vocabulary and math examples that are on the test. Teaching the children to respond to a general question such as "What is the author's purpose?" is just good teaching, but drilling the children on a response that would fit almost any poem or story is invalidating the test, in my opinion. Perhaps it isn't "cheating" in the strict sense, but the students aren't really learning. Wasn't that the whole point of your book?

  7. If a teacher presented her students with poems from authors who use a variety of structures (e.g., E.E. Cummings, Emily Dickinson), then exercises about rhyme, rhythm, and stanza could be very enlightening lessons on the nature of poetry. Picking poems of this kind appropriate for third-graders might be challenging, but my point is that the state standard and the way it is tested can represent a ceiling as well as a floor.

    What the right mix is between reading poems and writing poems is another question.