GUEST BLOGGER: Mary Anne Mather, Using Data Facilitator & Social Media Liaison on Twitter & FaceBook

Since the story broke, the media and bloggers have actively covered the details about a recent test-score-fixing fiasco—and the news continues (links provided below). There have been commentaries about who really suffers from a scam of this magnitude (students robbed of remedial opportunities) and who is to blame—their motivations…and their motivators (“…targets were implemented…in such a way that teachers and administrators believed that they had to choose between cheating to meet targets or failing to meet targets and losing their jobs.” Volume 3: Conclusions: Why cheating occurred and cover-up allegations, p. 4). Eraser end of pencil laying on test paper showing bubble answersI’m particularly taken withthe data-made-me do-itexplanation. There’s even talk of legal prosecution. This whole mess feels like a major attraction in a very tawdry sideshow of the school reform circus. And sadly, although the media is focused on one district at the moment, test score and data manipulation is not new news.

Yes, there’s explaining to do, and some one (or many) will need to be held accountable, but wouldn’t it be great if the lion’s share of the energy fueling our collective indignation, disbelief, and need for retribution could be channeled to establishing more positive, long-term improvements to a testing and assessment system that has surely gone awry. I’m not yet so tainted that I can’t believe we (saints and cheaters alike) all really want the same thing: exemplary schools, highly qualified teachers, and well-educated students who are life-long learners ready to succeed in their adult lives.

I weigh in with Diane Ravitch on this one, “I don’t want to get rid of testing. But tests should be used for information and diagnostics to improve teaching and learning, not to hand out bonuses, fire teachers, and close schools. When high stakes are attached to tests, people often act in ways that compromise educational values. High-stakes testing incentivizes narrowing of the curriculum, gaming the system, teaching to bad tests, and cheating. “ (Letter to the editor, NY Times, July 5, 2011)

Consider the up side. The data from a standardized test can offer a starting point for collegial discussion about why scores are low, who is struggling most, and the efficacy of existing pedagogy. It can help us: see if curriculum is well aligned with standards, examine the amount of time spent teaching certain topics or skills, and determine if what we teach is aligned with what we assess. It begs us to triangulate state data with results from district benchmark tests, student work samples, and informal student assessments, including observation. It can help us set learning goals and focus instruction to serve student needs. It can also offer clues to the types of teacher professional development needed and encourage peer-to-peer support. (See Assessment as a Tool for Learning for more.)

The recent Atlanta investigation report points out, “APS is indeed a ‘data driven system,’ and whether or not a school meets targets is the most important data of all. What has become clear through our investigation is that ultimately, the data, and meeting “targets” by whatever means necessary, became more important than true academic progress.” (Volume 3: Conclusions: Why cheating occurred and cover-up allegations, p. 9)

highway sign that points to high road in one direction and low road in the opposite directionIf all education stakeholders can use this expose as an opportunity to refocus and take a higher road that leads toward developing and supporting a system of data use that informs improvement, then we have gained some ground.

To help us move on, I offer a call to action. Leaders who pressured teachers to organize answer-changing “bubble parties,” teachers who did the answer-changing, and all of us who have even for a moment valued test scores over seeking pathways to better student learning, read this blog post about The Leadership Walk. We need to recognize that, in a way, we all are potential education leaders, so reflect on who might be watching your walk and what it has to say about you. Then take that higher road. Let your stakeholders—teachers, students, parents, community members, pundits, the media, readers—see you walk the walk of using test scores more intelligently. Use them to guide and focus improvement to the system, the curriculum, the leadership, the teachers, and the students. That’s what we all really want. Right?

And to return to Diane Ravitch for a moment, check out how some other countries organize testing and apply test data. Some of the ideas might help us leave the path along the school reform sideshow and hit that higher road with gusto.

Testing Scandal in the Recent Media

If you haven’t kept up with the commentary, here is a sampling of chronologically organized links to explore, beginning June 30, 2011 with the release of the investigation report:

Special Investigation into CRCT Cheating at APS

Volume 1: Overview, interviews, school summaries
Volume 2: School summaries, cont.
Volume 3: Why cheating occurred and cover-up allegations

Mayor: A Complete Failure of Leadership in APS in Testing Scandal
Atlanta Journal Constitution (includes video), July 5, 2011

State Investigation Reveals Widespread Cheating in Atlanta Schools
EdWeek, July 5, 2011

Investigation Into APS Cheating Finds Unethical Behavior Across Every Level
Atlanta Journal Constitution, July 6, 2011

Atlanta and New Orleans Schools Show the Many Ways Administrators Cut Corners
The Washington Independent, July 6, 2011

High-stakes Tests and Cheating: An inevitable combination?
Hechinger Report, July 6, 2011

Cheatin’ on Peach Tree Street
Eduflack Blog. July 7, 2011

Atlanta Could Have Averted Its Cheating Scandal If It Had Listened To Its Local Teachers Union, July 7, 2011

The Most Sickening Part of Atlanta’s Cheating Scandal
Washington Post, Valerie Strauss, July 11, 2011

Cheating: Is NAEP Next?
Scholastic Blog, July 12, 2011

What do we do with the cheaters?
Learning Matters Blog, Taking Note, John Merrow, July 12, 2011

Atlanta Schools Could Owe Up to $260K
CBS Atlanta, July 13, 2011

Cheating Teachers Play the Blame Game: Atlanta’s dishonest teachers say the data made them do it. Blog, July 13, 2011

Teachers’ Attorney: Atlanta test cheating report inaccurate, falsely accuses the innocent
11Alive TV (includes video), July 14, 2011

Why Organizational Misconduct Happens: A look at the Atlanta cheating scandal
Sociological Eye on Education Blog, Hechinger Report, July 14, 2011

And…Larry Ferlazzo’s picks pblished on July 17, 2011 for:
The Best Posts & Articles About The Atlanta Testing Scandal