A Plague of Cheating
This site is written and maintained by Jessie B. Ramey, Ph.D.,
a parent of two Pittsburgh Public School students. She is a historian
of working families and U.S. social policy and an ACLS New Faculty
Fellow in Women’s Studies and History at the University of Pittsburgh.
Her work has appeared in the Journal of Social History, the Journal of
Family History, the Huffington Post, and AlterNet.org, among others, and
she has twice been recognized by the White House with invitations to
meet with the President’s senior policy advisors. Her new book is Child
Care in Black and White: Working Parents and the History of Orphanages.
Passover ending tomorrow, perhaps we should add another plague to the
list that gets repeated at this time of year. You know: frogs, locusts,
hail, boils, and now cheating on high-stakes-tests. On Friday, the
superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools was indicted along with 34
others, including teachers and principals, for widespread cheating – by
adults – on the state's standardized state tests. Investigators found
178 Atlanta educators had worked to change student answers, among other
things, to increase the district's performance. Eighty-two people have
already confessed and the superintendent now faces up to 45 years in
jail. [Washington Post, 3-30-13]
For a while, Atlanta appeared to
be a testing success story, particularly given the number of poor and
African American students in the district. Under Dr. Beverly Hall,
student scores spiked – unbelievably high – and the American
Association of School Administrators named her superintendent of the
year. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invited her to the White
House and she earned over a half million dollars in bonus pay tied to
student performance. But the house of cards fell apart when prosecutors
convinced a teacher to wear a wire, revealing how some were selected to
meet secretly in back rooms donning gloves to erase and correct student
answers on test sheets. [New York Times, 3-29-13]
this is not just happening in Atlanta. The national obsession with test
results – and the corporate-style reforms such as privatization based
on them – has produced a plague of cheating scandals. The superintendent
of El Paso, Texas is now in prison for taking low-performing students
out of classes in order to increase the district's test scores. A
similar situation is under investigation in Ohio, where it appears
several cities listed low-performing students as "withdrawn" to remove
their scores from school totals. [New York Times, 3-29-13] And let's not
forget right here in Pennsylvania where our own state Secretary of
Education, Rom Tomalis, was caught both lying and cheating about student
test scores. [See "A Liar and a Cheat"]
FairTest (the National
Center for Fair and Open Testing) released a report last week showing
confirmed cases of test score manipulations in at least 37 states and
the District of Columbia. Washington D.C., of course, was the site of an
Atlanta-style story under former superintendent Michelle Rhee – now the
darling of the corporate reform movement who is famous for publicly
firing a principal and massive school closures – who oversaw her own
"Erasure-gate." FairTest has documented more than 50 ways that schools
improperly inflate test scores and the organization's public education
director Bob Shaeffer explains, "These corrupt practices are inevitable
consequences of the politically mandated overuse and misuse of
high-stakes exams." [FairTest, 3-27-13]
Pedro Noguera, the New
York University scholar hired by the Pittsburgh Public Schools as a
consultant, put it simply: "I don't condone cheating but I see what
happened in Atlanta and the other districts where cheating has occurred
as a direct result of the insane fixation on raising test scores at the
expense of actually insuring that children are learning. The real fault
lies with the federal and state governments that have been applying the
pressure on school districts." [DianeRavitch, 3-30-13]
legislators want to ratchet up the stakes attached to testing even more.
One particularly cruel example comes from Tennessee where Republican
state Sen. Stacey Campfield has introduced a bill calling for the state
to cut welfare benefits to parents when their children do not perform
well on standardized tests. [FoxNews, 1-28-13] Talk about high-stakes.
students, and teachers all over the country are starting to fight this
madness through the civil disobedience of opting-out. [For more on the
movement here in PA, see "Time's Up"] Yinzercator Kathy Newman wrote a
wonderful Op-Ed, copied below, that appeared on the front page of
yesterday's Sunday Forum section explaining why her family is opting
out. The piece has gone viral on social media, with over 4,000 Facebook
shares from the Post-Gazette website alone (as of 10AM this morning and
climbing fast by the minute). Be sure to also check out the terrific
conversation it has sparked on-line, with many teachers weighing in to
explain their support for the opt-out movement.
It's time to
change the stakes in student assessment and end this plague of cheating.
Like another one of the famous Egyptian plagues that took the lives of
children, high-stakes-testing is stealing the educational lives of our
Why I Won't Let My Son Take the PSSA: The Opt Out Movement is Growing Because High Stakes Tests are Wrecking Our Schools
Kathy M. Newman
am an English professor. So you can imagine how my pride was hurt when
my 9-year-old son Jacob started bringing home low scores on his practice
reading tests for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.
husband and I have been helping Jacob with his test-prep reading
homework every weeknight this year, and it has been a grim slog. At
times I have found myself getting angry when Jacob has fidgeted, or when
he has had trouble focusing. Sometimes I have gotten angry when he
simply hasn't been able to answer the questions.
Then one day
this March it dawned on me. I am getting angry at my son about a test. A
test that I do not like. A "high-stakes" test that will put so much
pressure on Jacob that it probably will not reflect his true abilities. I
also realized something else: Jacob does not love to read.
doing some research and talking with other parents, my husband and I
decided to "opt out" Jacob from the PSSA tests. We are opting him out
because we do not like what high-stakes tests are doing to Jacob, to our
family, to his teachers, to his school and, ultimately, to our entire
High-stakes tests like the PSSAs are used to
evaluate, close and punish public schools, including my son's school,
Pittsburgh Linden, a K-5 magnet school in Point Breeze. Linden's
Adequate Yearly Progress score is bound to Linden's PSSA test results.
According to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, every public school
in the United States must be 100 percent proficient in reading and math
(based on test scores) by 2014.
Last year, Linden did not make
AYP. In fact, only six Pittsburgh Public Schools did. A neighboring
school, Colfax, which is one of the best schools in the East End, has
been labeled "low-achieving" and is currently under something called
"Corrective Action II." Under this label, a school can be reconstituted,
chartered or privatized.
High-stakes tests also warp the
educational environment. This March, as Linden is gearing up for the
PSSAs, the hallways were stripped bare as per state law. Artwork,
motivational slogans, student-made posters, the Women's History display
my kids helped to make, my daughter's picture of herself as a "writer"
when she grows up, the "dream" statements everyone filled out in January
with the large cutout of Martin Luther King — all of it has come down.
During testing season, access to Linden's new iPads — for which I helped
to write the grant that allowed us to acquire them — will also be
The curriculum at Linden is narrowing, too. As testing
has ratcheted up, and as Gov. Tom Corbett's billion-dollar cut to
Pennsylvania's K-12 education budget have kicked in, schools across the
state are dropping programs that are not measured by tests.
year at Linden the third-grade band program was cut, dozens of hours of
music instruction were cut, our science programming was reduced, and we
were slated to lose our art teacher (fortunately we were able to save
her). We lost dozens of hours of library instruction, and children are
allowed access to the library only once every two weeks. Ironically, the
loss of our library hours will hurt the students more when it comes to
testing. A recent study found that "[w]ith a full-time librarian,
students are more likely to score 'Advanced' and less likely to score
'Below Basic' on reading and writing tests."
Also, there is the
stress. Jacob, only a third-grader, has cried, gotten dejected and
thrown fits over his test-prep requirements, both at home and at school.
Sixth graders in our district will take 23 different tests this year —
up from nine the previous year.
During the tests, students are
treated like prisoners, with limited bathroom breaks and constant
monitoring. These conditions are especially hard for special-needs
children and children with Individual Education Plans.
are also stressed. My son's third-grade teacher has been working so hard
this year that he arrives many days as early as 6 a.m. and stays for
hours after school, sometimes as late as 9 p.m. From around the district
I am hearing stories about teachers crying in the hall — devastated by
the harm they believe the tests are inflicting.
Let me be clear. I
believe in evaluation as a tool — I use quizzes and other testing
techniques in my college classroom. But high-stakes tests, tests used to
label schools, teachers and students as failures, are damaging our
nation's educational system.
Here in Pittsburgh and across
southwestern Pennsylvania, the movement to opt out of standardized
testing is taking root. In the Pittsburgh Public Schools there are
parents at Colfax, Greenfield, Liberty, Linden, Montessori and Phillips
who are opting their children out of the PSSAs. Across the region, some
parents in Mt. Lebanon, Somerset County and Westmoreland County are
doing so as well. In Mt. Lebanon, a group of parents opted out when
their children's school cut back on recess, extended the length of the
school day and reduced other school services, such as counseling and
nursing — all to make way for more testing.
opt-out movement is also swelling nationwide. Earlier this year,
teachers in several Seattle high schools refused to administer a
high-stakes test called the MAP. In Portland, Ore.; Providence, R.I.;
and Denver, Colo., students themselves have been leading the charge
against the tests. Just last month in Texas, more than 10,000 parents
rallied against an increase in testing and decrease in funding for Texas
public schools. Some of these actions are coming under the banner of
United Opt Out National (unitedoptout.com).
Next month, while
Jacob's classmates are nervously sharpening their pencils and getting
hushed by their teachers, Jacob is going to be in the Linden library,
reading for pleasure — a pastime I have encouraged and rewarded since I
realized that Jacob isn't keen on reading.
With this act of civil
disobedience, our family will contribute to the revolt against the
standardized testing that is hurting students, schools and the quality
of education. I want my children to learn, but also to love to learn.
Kathy M. Newman is an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University (firstname.lastname@example.org).