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Topic: "Atlanta: Tip of an iceberg? or not?"

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Topic started by: Brian Drayton on 4/3/13

Does the Atlanta "test cheating scandal" tell us something about the current assessment-driven reforms, or is it just a matter of a few miscreants? What do you think?

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Atlanta: Tip of an iceberg, or a few bad apples?

posted by: Brian Drayton on 4/3/2013 8:17 pm

The recent unsettling indictments of school officials in Atlanta seem to me to raise important questions about how our ramifying system of accountability in education actually is experienced, and what some of its "collateral damage" may be. While a "system" can't make me misbehave, and I am responsible for my actions, a system can set up such conditions that cheating or other misdeeds may seem like making the best of a bad situation.
For more than a decade, voices such as Gerry Bracey, Alfie Kohn, Susan Ohanian, and Gary Orfield have argued that several elements in our accountability "reforms" may make cheating inevitable and indeed endemic. Nichols and Berliner wrote a powerful analysis of the problem in 2005
(, and it seems convincing to me still. They reflect on "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." Fair Test has documented cases from 37 states so far.
What do you think is going on? What are you seeing in your state? What lessons do you think might be learned?

collateral damage of accountability

posted by: Christina Sormani on 4/4/2013 3:33 am

I believe restaurants are held accountable in many states for upholding a certain level of sanitary conditions. In fact, those who violate the health code will be shut down altogether. Naturally this leads to some well known cases of bribery and some rather horrific views of kitchens crawling with rats on local news channels. Does one then decide to abandon the health code, because some restaurants cheated? Or does one create a more stringent set of codes?

on the restaurant analogy

posted by: David May on 4/5/2013 12:01 pm

Well, what if restaurant cleaning supplies were in short supply or extremely expensive? What if workers had to spend more time cleaning than cooking, because the restaurant was built on a toxic garbage dump?

There are many schools and districts that are set up for failure in this way, and the incentives to cheat (as Brian Drayton pointed out, with references) are substantial. I personally know a former teacher whose colleagues routinely shook their heads or made some other cue when they saw a test-taking student fill in the wrong bubble. High-level administrators who cheat may want to get ahead in their careers, but many teachers just want to keep their jobs.

Appropriate standards are nice goals to reach for, but like JFK's goal of getting to the Moon, you need to provide the means to achieve that goal. We should provide MORE resources for the schools and communities that are struggling, and not punish them by taking away what little they have. The focus on high-stakes assessments (get good scores or we'll fire you or close you down) is misguided, in my view.

health codes, building codes...

posted by: Christina Sormani on 4/6/2013 9:55 am

David May wrote:

Well, what if restaurant cleaning supplies were in short supply or extremely expensive? What if workers had to spend more time cleaning than cooking, because the restaurant was built on a toxic garbage dump?

Appropriate standards are nice goals to reach for, but like JFK's goal of getting to the Moon, you need to provide the means to achieve that goal.

My response:

I completely agree that the money is needed to reach the goals that are set forth for the schools. Continuing with the restaurant analogy, I believe we would all agree that a toxic restaurant must be closed down if it would be too expensive to clean up. Money must be found to clean it up. Money for education comes primarily from the states or local governments. So one might view the local government or state as the restaurant chain owner that needs to adjust the funding of its various branches to ensure that every location is a healthy place to eat.

I don't blame the health code when a restaurant has a violation, I blame the individual restaurant or the chain of restaurants. The health code is just warning people that some restaurants are not only disgusting but possibly a health risk.

Back to the schools and being subjected to codes they cannot attain. Many schools are subject to building codes and electrical codes that have been very expensive. Old buildings over a century old have structural problems that must be repaired, others have asbestos that must be removed and others have electrical systems destroyed in hurricanes. One agency provides the codes which hands down the decision to a school that it must address these problems or close. Another agency is then begged for financial assistance. Electrical workers are brought in from out of state as needed. Schools have been dealing with this for years.

Now schools are being given codes to assess their primary function: education. I strongly support the creation of funding agencies at local, state and US levels to help schools that fail to meet the code. The common core and testing helps determine who needs the additional help.

Will people be tempted to cheat? Only those who fear to lose their jobs. Are principals tempted to hide their asbestos problems? Most definitely. See: ive-than-expected.html

I excerpt: "the school testing program is more severe and costly than officials initially expected." This was the school testing for asbestos!!!!

Should we end the asbestos testing? Or perhaps provide the NYC board of education additionally funding to help remove all the asbestos? Meanwhile the NYC Board of Education is struggling to deal with hurricane costs and some of the highest poverty students in the country. Without the additional requirement that their students meet standards, all the funding might be going to handling these building code violations.


posted by: Suzette Archibald-Wilson on 4/8/2013 1:05 am

I am somehow not sure that comparing student testing to germ testing is the road we want to walk. I agree with your second comment on accountability and that losing one's job based on the performance of students can be the temptation to cheat as the the teacher. This is, of course, on what merit pay is based. These mostly multiple choice tests are a reflection of one day in students' lives. Multiple choice testing is only for rote memorization and leads children to believe there is only one answer to life's questions. It does not get to the meat of a child's understanding and/or their ability to apply what they've learned.

Having any accountability based on student performance is just bad science. How many uncontrolled variables can we list that would throw out the results of any other testing? What, if anything, did they have for breakfast. Did mom and dad fight the night before, get drunk, hit them, or were they gone altogether? Are they forced into gangs? Do they live in a community that prefers private schools and chooses to vote down funding for public schools. This list could go on endlessly as we all know. I cannot control any of these variables and to base my job security or pay on testing results is absurd. Testing should measure growth, now that I can help a student achieve.


posted by: Christina Sormani on 4/8/2013 8:33 am

My comparison of student standards to health standards and building standards was in response to the idea that setting high stakes standards leads to cheating and that, due to cheating, perhaps one should just give up on having the standards at all.

Multiple choice testing

posted by: Christina Sormani on 4/8/2013 8:37 am

Suzette Archibald-Wilson wrote "Multiple choice testing is only for rote memorization and leads children to believe there is only one answer to life's questions."

The following typical multiple choice questions do in fact have exactly one answer (and the only way to successfully obtain that answer is to master a skill which is useful in subsequent courses):

1) A long division problem

2) an addition of fractions problem

3) solving an equation of the form 30=5x+10

4) selecting the graph of a line from four choices given the formula

5) Given the graph of a function, identify which function among five choices it matches

What happened to cognitive demand?

posted by: Padmanabhan Seshaiyer on 4/10/2013 7:48 am

Yes, multiple choice testing seems to have become a norm in many standardized and state standards testing. In many states there is currently a move to replace some of the multiple choice testing by open-ended assessment which is great assuming they have a good rubric on which these open-ended assessments will be graded (that is another whole story!). While there is value to both, there are disadvantages as well if not used properly.

For example if the questions were posed in a very low level as in "Convert 1/4 to a decimal" and the multiple choices include "0.25" that would be a no brainer and does not require a lot of thinking. This would be a task at a low level demand. If the question were to "do" a long division problem or to have the students multiply 0.375 by 100 and the student does it by using the famous "move to the right by two" (whether they understand this or not), now we have an example of what is refered to as a low level task where all the students "do" is some procedures without any connections. However enhancing the multiple choice question by say giving them a 10 x 10 grid and shading a part of the squares in it and asking "what is the percentage shown" then the student really has to work before they answer. Now this would be a task at a higher level demand but note that the student is doing procedure without the connections. Finally extending this problem to a higher level demand to expect the students to understand and "do" the mathematics can be done by simply asking "which of the following shows 60%" and then maybe give them a 5 x 5 grid and the multiple choices involves appropriate shading and the students need to really think through this.

My point here is that one can definately motivate the students and make them think and learn through multiple choice questions that are carefully formulated by the teacher or publishers or whoever! Unfortunately, the questions are "not" in most cases and students can be trained (or train themselves) to perform well (or poorly). It is essential that the "cognitive demand" be brought out in any lesson one teaches at various levels to enhance student learning. There is some nice work by Boston, Stein and Smith on this which we now incorporate into our MSP Professional Development. We firmly believe that one can use carefully selected problems that have varying levels of cognitive demand to not only engage students in learning but also will help assess the performance of students, whether it is multiple-choice or open-ended! So it is time for those creating multiple choice tests to spend more time on making the questions that can make them engage and think!

Cognitive Demand

posted by: Cynthia Walker on 4/12/2013 10:12 am

I agree with the loss of cognitive demand. However, the teachers in my school district have depended too long on the publishers of textbooks to set the standards of their teaching. Searching for raised standards in the newer textbooks has been a challenge. Publishers will need to do more that just a word search to sell textbooks to sell alignment to Common Core State Standards exists. Teachers have the ability to teach raising cognitive demand but they need the guidance from publishers of the resources used in the classrooms. I believe in the teachers in this country and if the resources are available, the results will be revealed in higher standards. Teachers don't have the time within a school time frame to expand standards, write the lesson plans and design the activities to meet the standards. Given time they will be able to have a curriculum designed to meet those standards. However, time is not available because assessment dates are scheduled for 2014-2014 school year. Teachers are ready if given the resources.

How MSP Programs can help create TIME

posted by: Padmanabhan Seshaiyer on 4/13/2013 9:34 am

Totally agree! You brought out the most important item to make MSP programs more successful..."creating the time for the teachers within a school time frame."

One way to help create this is through an effective professional development (PD) in the summer before the semester starts. This PD should not only engage the teachers in learning new material but also work with them to see how they can enhance lesson plans they will be delivering through problem based learning or model eliciting activities or simply discovery learning. One of the goals of the summer institute should also be that the teachers walk out with fully developed lesson plans and overviews they could potentially use in conjunction with what their unit plan. This can then be followed up by a couple of webinars to refine the lesson so they are ready to deliver the enhanced lesson. Yes, it will take a little more time but more than the time, I feel they get the opportunity of collaborative lesson planning and delivery that is much more powerful which is missing in the country a lot. One such tool that automatically implements such a collaborative lesson planning is a lesson study where teachers actually have an opportunity to collaborate, plan, deliver and then even debrief.

Another way to save time is to learn about rich benchmark problems that can help connect multiple units that the teachers will be teaching at different parts of the semester. It is important that teachers take advantage of this or at least be given exposure to such ideas through MSP programs. For example, if the unit in the first two weeks covers percents, the next two weeks covers decimals, the next two weeks on fractions, some where few weeks later covers probability, it would be wise to come up with effective benchmark problems/tasks/activities that are connected in such a way that all these topics can be motivated during "all" these sessions with stress on whatever is the appropriate topic that needs to be covered. Not only will this engage more student involvement but also they start to recognize the themes and connect them better this way. Effective PDs should find a way to doing this.

Next, another way of creating time would be to create model class rooms along with curriculum changes. While there are definately many benefits in the western education system, it is also sometimes important to see the benefits that one could get by seeing or borrowing the educational system from the east. For example, lesson study being implemented in the United States now in many districts is a result of the process that evolved and is a part of the culture in Japan and how it has become very powerful to enhance student learning.

Another example is the way we teach...for instance teacher "" having her own room and the kids walking back and forth between sessions to "Mr. PQR's" or "Mrs. ABC's" class during the day. The model in the east is where the students stay in the same class, but "Mrs. xyz" walks in the first period delivers the lesson, "Mr. PQR" then walks in the second period delivers the lesson and then "Mrs. ABC" and so on. Yes, I agree this may not be the most ideal model as the students only get a little bit of exercise to move around between classes where there is 10 minute recess. But the best part is where all the teachers actually have a common teachers hall/lounge where each teacher has a desk with their items. The system creates an automatic environment for Mrs. xyz, Mr. PQR and Mrs. ABC to also have 5-10 min conversation (several times!) throughout the day. This maybe about how well their class went or how could they have improved their lesson or even Mrs. xyz could get advice from Mr. PQR to enhance some ideas (this is real-time!). Think about the power of these small moments where teachers have the opportunity to collaborate. Compare that with our system here where we have to have a weekly/monthly meeting to see what Mrs. xyz or Mr. PQR or Mrs. ABC have been doing or with all the busy schedules of adminstrators, they often find out about how teachers are doing through their performance reports!

Finally, the educational system not just in the west but everywhere goes with the philosophy of "Here is the (topic), let us go solve the problem." It is more powerful to reverse this into "Here is the problem, let us find the (topic) to solve it"!

the failing inner city kids

posted by: Christina Sormani on 4/8/2013 8:52 am

Let me last address the inner city kids who may underperform on exams due to high stakes testing.

I personally went to an inner city school in a fairly violent neighborhood where many kids were dealing with problems at home. I got out of those schools by taking an exam for one of NYC specialized public high schools.

Of course kids perform worse when something bad happens at home. Even at the specialized public high school I had a friend who struggled to make ends meet working at jobs. It is terribly unfair when kids have to work. Everyone knows someone whose grades slipped when their parents got divorced.

The two worst things about my inner city schools (and the inner city schools my students now at CUNY went to) are:

a) violence in the school building

b) classes in which no one expects the students to be able to do anything and where the subjects are taught so slowly that the kids want to get up and scream. My students have reported being in courses where the top student earned a 75% on the NYS exam in a class which was paced to take two years instead of one and where literally 25% of the subject matter wasn't addressed because the teachers proceed so slowly. When checking with teachers in my MSP, I found out this was common practice.

So yes, of course, the performance of the kids on the exams will depend upon their home circumstances, but setting the kids up to fail because you don't believe they can do it is giving them bad circumstances in school as well. If a child has a really bad year at home, they may even need to repeat a course, and in some schools as many as 1/4 to 1/2 the students may need to repeat a challenging course, but don't fail the whole school by pacing the courses so slowly that everyone with or without problems can pass and no one is prepared for a STEM major in college.

This testing reveals when schools are slowing down the pace and teaching half the subjects. Since one can carefully assess for each topic separately, it is quite easy to identify when a teacher has skipped an entire subject. It is even more easy to see that a high school is taking two years to teach algebra and two years to teach geometry if there are exams on these subjects. Then one can see that the high school has failed to prepare a single student for a STEM college major. Without the exams, the high school can pretend to teach trigonometry and even calculus.

failing inner city kids II

posted by: Christina Sormani on 4/8/2013 9:24 am

I forgot to mention how standard state and common core exams can be used by a teacher as a leader within his or her school.

Many schools do not allow teachers to remove disruptive students from their classrooms. So the whole class is slowed down by the bad behavior of a few students (who will do things like throw chairs out of windows). When the school is being held accountable for the progress of their students, the teachers can demand that these disruptive students be removed from the classroom.

Once those students are out, and there is a threat of being kicked out and sent to some sort of punitive alternate location (which is truly punitive), then the class will behave and listen.

I know many teachers who have quit working in New York public schools over class control issues who were very intelligent and kind people who wanted nothing more than to teach mathematics to kids who needed their help to learn.

My students at CUNY have said the biggest difference between College Algebra and High School Algebra is that everyone in the classroom is listening and learning.

Cheating is cheating, right?

posted by: Elizabeth Oyer on 4/8/2013 8:36 am

Call me old fashioned, but I think we are all accountable and responsible for the choices we make. If we work in a system that seems stacked against us for our professional security, we live in a country un-matched in our liberty to change jobs. What is clear is that the students don't benefit from this cheating. I think anyone caught up in the cheating scandal will have a long list of reasons that in my mind don't excuse any of their choices. In this authentic, performance based assessment system, these adults have failed. The validity and reliability of the tests and the assessment system in general are separate questions. There are plenty of examples of high poverty, high performing schools based on these very same assessment systems. That doesn't mean they don't need to be continuously scrutinized and evolved to reflect the performance of students. It also doesn't mean there is inherent complexity in judging the quality of the educators based on the performance of the students. But I have zero tolerance for the active manipulation of the data -- there is a basement level of integrity that we have to rely on and expect or all of this work we do is jeopardized.

Cheating is not quite the point, for me

posted by: Brian Drayton on 4/9/2013 7:51 am

The conversation has been interesting so far, but I find the "Cheating" phenomenon interesting from a slightly different angle. I should say at the outset that I don't subscribe to the idea that "the system made me do it," nor am I interesting in excusing fraud or cheating.
But I am interested in it as another symptom or indicator of the nature of education as we are creating it. It needs to be put alongside any claims of benefits and improvements, on the one hand, and on the other hand alongside other phenomena, such as continued high rates of new teachers leaving the profession; the rapid growth of a testing industry that is closely wedded to the publishing industry; the massive presence of corporate interests in all aspects of school policy; the narrowing of curriculum...

Accountability in the wrong direction

posted by: Michael Falk on 4/10/2013 8:23 am

I agree with this assessment. Cheating is not excusable, but it seems to be a feature of a system in which the metric of success is so narrow. I believe this goes hand in hand with the fact that the responsiveness of the inner city schools we are engaging with seems the inverse of my experience growing up going to middle class suburban public schools. The administrations are highly sensitized to meeting narrow aggregated expectations from above, but are not particularly attuned to meeting individual or community generated parental expectations from below. Parents appear disengaged from the classroom and from their children's academic achievement.

Yes, tip of the iceberg

posted by: Andy Zucker on 4/11/2013 7:26 am

I know a young woman in her late 20s who left a retail job to get a teaching degree and certificate and then lasted only one year in NYC. She returned to retail when her principal insisted that she cheat on the tests her 2nd graders were taking. About a week ago PBS interviewed the NY Times reporter who wrote about the Atlanta cheating scandal and he said he believes cheating happens in many places, not just Atlanta.

Today's NY Times has a very interesting article on Texas (probably) cutting back on testing -- from 15 tests required for h.s. graduation (!!) to only 5. And the Boston Globe has an editorial this morning about what they say is improper use of the NECAP test as a graduation requirement in Rhode Island.

Large numbers of policymakers, including Ted Kennedy, recklessly jumped on the NCLB testing bandwagon. Today's policymakers need a better understanding of the limits and the flaws of test-driven reform.

Tip of Iceberg

posted by: Ruby Ashley on 4/12/2013 10:31 am

I have been in education in Georgia for over 18 years and have seen many ideas come and go. In the last 10/15 years it seems that we have lost sight of the most important thing with is our children. There is so much pressure put on the them and their teachers to pass these test that we have 3rd grades having anxiety attacks and teachers helping them cheat on test in order to keep their jobs.

Something is wrong with this picture!!!!!

Standardized testing in general

posted by: Selena Strickland on 4/17/2013 1:58 pm

I believe that cheating occurs nation-wide, where high-stakes testing takes place. There will always be a certain portion of society that will try to succeed in the easiest way possible. Because of that fact, some people get accused of it, because it is expected. It just adds to the likelihood when raises or even jobs are contingent on the performance of students.

My biggest issue with standardized testing ties into my last statement. In college and in professional development, we have been taught that there are many learning styles. We were told that an assessment of knowledge can take many forms. Why, then, do we expect all children to pass the same style of test? I realize that the test can be an indicator of the gaps in education, or inabilities of a student. However, I am concerned about the students who do not test well, due to the format, or the stress that is placed on that one day of their school year.

Frenzies and testing and all

posted by: Brian Drayton on 4/18/2013 3:15 pm

I agree, Selena. The much-praised ed reform act in Massachusetts mandated multiple assessments, but what we got was the MCAS.
I was just reading EdWeek, and Michael Feuer was arguing against using the many cheating scandals as a reason to criticize testing. I was struck by the topsy-turvy nature of conventional wisdom. He writes "what's often ignored in the popular frenzy against testing, especially in the wake of cheating scandals, is the benefits side of the argument: Tests can help gauge individual learning, give teachers additional information about their students' progress, provide objective indicators of student achievement, and expose inequalities in the allocation of educational resources."
Testing is now the conventional wisdom, it is a central tool of establishment policy, and the benefits are not doubted - yet evidence is not strong, and dissent is decried like this. I would prefer that the issues -all the issues -- be discussed, and considerations like those you mention be taken into account to create a new generation of metrics that are as constructive as our current high stakes regime is imagined to be.

Time when test results are returned to teachers

posted by: Frank Gardella on 4/19/2013 10:36 pm

According to Michael Feuer, Tests can help gauge individual learning, give teachers additional information about their students' progress, provide objective indicators of student achievement, and expose inequalities in the allocation of educational resources."

Does this mean that the results of the tests are guaranteed to be returned to the schools by the June or July so that such assistance that test can provide can be used in a proper and timely fashion?