"A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops." Henry Brooks Adams

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Tragedy Of Cheating Scandals

One of the lovely legacies that the pressure inherent in the high-stakes testing that NCLB requires has left us is the cheating scandal. There have been several cheating scandals and allegations in the last several years-- Atlanta and Washington, DC are the most well covered. Well, now our own Philadelphia Public School District has its own (alleged) scandal: The principal at Roosevelt Middle School has been accused of altering tests and giving out answers to 'help' her students make AYP. This saddens me, but if it is true, is not all that suprising.
Let me say that I believe the No Child Left Behind Law to be essentially unjust and the Adequate Yearly Progress goal to be unfair. However, I do not think cheating is ever justified. First of all, depending on how the cheating takes place, students are made complicit in an illegal act, and no educator should ever do that. Secondly, even if students do not know they are cheating (for example, their answers are changed after they hand in the test), they are given inaccurate results and a false idea of their achievement. Thirdly, it does not really help anyone, or address the inequity of many standardized tests or of our present system. And, last, but certainly not least--IT IS JUST FLAT-OUT WRONG.

Having said all of that, I can also say that I can truly understand and even empathize slightly with the thinking that makes such cheating scandals possible. NCLB and AYP put a huge amount of pressure on school districts to 'improve achievement' (notice it does not say improve learning). Despite all this emphasis on improving test scores and achievement, the monetary and social supports needed to help all children learn are not forthcoming. In fact, stating that anything outside the classroom impacts learning (when we all know it does) has become a copout--thereby enabling 'reformers' and corporate 'do-gooders' to put all the blame for low achievement on the people inside the schools--primarily teachers and principals. Some people, when they see the inequities of the system, when they are bullied and criticized at every turn, when their very livelihood and the calling they have poured their heart and soul into is threatened, will resort to a 'by any means necessary' mentality to raise test scores. None of these reasons justify cheating, they just sadly explain it.

The atmosphere at many schools around testing can easily become paranoid and poisonous. Principals are harangued by regional chairpeople and superintendents, and --in turn--return to their schools to pressure teachers and students. We all want to do our best every day to help our students learn, but most of us agree that test pressure and teaching to the test are not conducive to true learning. Some sort of standardized evaluation is needed, but what is the best and fairest way to do this? That is a discussion for another day, but I think that we can all see that this retaliatory and adversarial system that seems to lead almost inexorably to some cheating is not good for our students or our educational system.