AYP: If You’re Not Cheating, You’re Not Trying

The teacher “admitted to prompting students by inflecting her voice to emphasize the correct answer,” the state investigation said.  —Atlanta Journal Constitution, 7.28.11

There has been an endless tomahawk chop of stories, commentary and spleen venting regarding the discovery that organized standardized test cheating has been going on in Atlanta Public Schools.  There’s not much more that can be said about the debacle, but that won’t stop me from making a comment or two.

Besides giving the Atlanta Journal Constitution a license to print unlimited, soon-to-be-Pulitzer Prize winning stories, findings in Atlanta have matured standardized test-o-mania into the same categorical syllogism now found in sports like baseball and professional cycling:

  • All winners are cheating
  • School X is winning
  • School X is cheating

The only thing left to do now is define the cheating that led to the “win”.  In some cases, it’s simply like the quoted inflection anecdote above, in which a single teacher just really, really wants her students to do well.  And that’s both sad and funny, if you’re sense of humor tends toward my own.

Then you’ve got your more systematic cheating, including state-wide replacement of harder tests for easier ones, altering the number of correct answers to be considered “proficient”, and creating wacky rules where students can be considered passing who don’t actually pass.

It’s interesting that we/I laugh about the inflection story above, while largely ignoring these other, more mendacious examples of cheating, but there’s just something about committees, agencies and folks in suits and power couture that tend to make them seemingly respectable while inflection teacher just comes off looking very much like a schmuck.

And now that the syllogism has reached a point of maturation, assumptions can be logically drawn and promulgated that EVERY case of dramatic gain in test scores is an example of cheating.  In the same story with the inflection anecdote we find the following with regards to school found doing significantly better on this year’s tests:

This spring, while state investigators were digging into suspicions about cheating on a 2009 statewide test at dozens of Atlanta schools, an extraordinary thing was happening at five of them.

They were registering exceptional gains on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, so exceptional that an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found the odds of such increases range from about one in 700 to one in 21,000.

The odds that these improvements were obtained by honest means aren’t as long as the AJC has found in the past, but they are still statistically unusual. Principals and parents say the improvements were due to exceptional efforts, but others say the scores deserve a closer look.

In other words…thanks hard-working teachers & students for raising those test scores, but we’re calling bullshit until further notice.

Not keeping up with the syllogism, creaky old “No Child Left Behind” still has provisions that reward dramatic gains in test scores.  The “Safe Harbor Provision” of NCLB obviously must be changed to “Blatantly Obvious Cheaters Provision” in NCLB 2.0, with triggers of investigation, employee probation/termination and placement in a publicly pronounced “list o’ cheaters” for every increase of more than 10% in scores.

Lastly, it’s telling that all this brouhaha has developed largely before the next peg on the road to test-o-mania perdition, tying teacher pay/jobs to test scores.  Can you imagine all the fun times in store when we move into that realm?  We’re talking videotaping of every testing environment, controlled access to erasers, blood, urine and hair screening…the whole works.  Just think “hanging chad” times every school & every school district & every state in the Union.

One very possible initial outcome on the road to urine screening is the creation of a new TSA o’ test proctors, folks hired to go around administering standardized tests.  Perhaps these new proctors can wear plastic gloves and wield little wands sensitive to erasers and answers written on the palms of student hands.

We’ve now reached the logical point in this “story” that independent test proctors only make sense, and few will blink when districts/state fork over big money to pay these educational mercenaries.  This is almighty “accountability” we’re talking about here.

Big testing firms like Pearson will increase the “verticality” of their standardized test market by creating test proctor divisions, in the same way Monsanto sells Roundup-resistant crop seeds.  Others hired by Pearson will oversee movement of test booklets and answer documents from classroom to test scoring offices ala Brinks armored car transport.

Stop me when this starts to sound implausible.

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