For several years, ever since the No Child Left Behind Act took effect, students, teachers, and school districts have felt the pressure that comes from living in a nation that uses standardized tests as its sole method for measuring student proficiency. When too many students at one school perform poorly on these tests, teachers can be fired, principals replaced and schools closed. Hundreds of teachers were fired in D.C. schools because of poor performance by students on tests. The stakes are high. But, no one would have guessed that the pressure would lead to alleged cheating on these exams.
An investigation by USA Today into drastic test score turnarounds at Noyes elementary, a Washington, D.C. public school, revealed that seventh grade students in one classroom at the school each had, on average, nearly 13 wrong answers that were erased and changed to the correct answer.
Coincidence? Maybe not. In 2006, 10 percent of the school’s students “passed” the standardized math test. In 2008, nearly 60 percent did. Tests scores showed the school made similar gains on the reading portion of the test. Perhaps the teachers simply worked harder and ensured students absorbed the lessons? Maybe. But it’s important, for comparison, to note that the average wrong to right erasure for seventh graders throughout the D.C. public school system was less than one. Noyes elementary school isn’t the only one with questionable score improvement. Fifty-eight Atlanta schools are under investigation because high rates of wrong answers changed to right on student answer sheets raised flags. Similar occurrences have raised red flags in Detroit as well. If this is, in fact, cheating, who is responsible? Teachers? School principals? No one is sure but one thing is certain: if it’s happening in D.C., Detroit, and Atlanta, it is happening in other cities.
Changing test answers to fake improvement doesn’t help our students. It hurts them. That is why a federal task force needs to be formed to investigate drastic improvement on standardized tests at our nation’s public schools. We want to believe that our teachers and principals are honest but we also know that fear—of being fired if students perform poorly—or greed—teachers and principals at Noyes received bonuses when scores improved—are powerful motivators.
There also needs to be another way to measure student performance. We cannot simply rely on standardized tests. Periodic monitoring can easily show how students and teachers perform in the classroom. Required essays and math ‘projects’ will show us that students can actually apply what they are taught. Diversifying the way we measure student performance—and deciding the fate of teachers, principals, and schools—will also help keep things honest.
(Judge Greg Mathis is vice president of RainbowPUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)