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.