In today's Wall Street Journal, Stephanie Banchero writes about the Philadelphia public school system, the latest district whose teachers have given in to the temptation to change answers on high-stakes tests. She writes:
The drama in Philadelphia—a district in such financial straits it almost didn't open on time this past fall—is the latest cheating controversy to engulf public schools.
Other districts in the Hall of High-Stakes-Cheating include Atlanta, Baltimore, El Paso, and Washington, D.C.
High-stakes testing isn't making our kids any smarter, but it sure is sucking the joy out of teaching for our best educators. And it's also bringing out horrendous behavior in our worst educators.
Educating our children is one of the most important jobs in the country. When you make impossible demands on the practitioners of that job, tie their hands, and pay them peanuts, a funny thing happens: the education system doesn't get any better.
Want to improve our public education system? Pay teachers more, and let them teach according to their personal style and professional training. Good teaching matters. In his 2010 book Saving Schools, education researcher Paul E. Peterson notes:
Students in classrooms taught by the very best teachers (the top 20 percent) acquire approximately an extra year's worth of learning annually, compared to students taught by the lowest-performing teachers (the bottom 20 percent).
What if we paid teachers what they're actually worth? What if we paid them an amount of money commensurate with our belief in the importance of our children's future and America's leadership role in the world?
What if we paid them ridiculously well, and then let them do their job?
Test scores would rise automatically. There would be no more need for high-stakes testing as punishment.
The only thing a test does is measure how good you are at taking that particular test. If I believed the ACT or SAT was an accurate measurement of my own abilities, I wouldn't have become a college professor. Some people aren't great test-takers.
As Neil Postman notes in Teaching as a Conserving Activity, students who are preoccupied with studying for a test may do well on that final test, but they’ll be disabled as readers. It’s rather pointless, Postman says, to discover if a student can “pick out an appropriate title for a paragraph” or “identify the antonym of some particular word.”
People do not speak or write well because they know the mechanics of their language. They know the mechanics of their language because they speak or write well.
In the end, high-stakes testing will have taught us a lot. It will teach our children the lie that everything can be quantified. It will teach our children to judge their intelligence by an incredibly subjective measurement. It will also teach our children not to be educators—because there is no joy in that job. There is only poor pay and unrealistic expectations.
Because I teach at the college level, my job still allows me freedom in the classroom. The tentacles of high-stakes testing have not yet strangled the college classroom. That may not always be the case, but it's true for now. I hope that, as a nation, we learn the true lessons of high-stakes testing, and reverse course, before things get any worse.