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Thursday, August 4, 2011

The FCAT continues to pervert education

From the Miami Herald

By Fred Grimm

In the great Atlanta test scandal, educators cheated mostly on behalf of institutions. Teachers, under intense pressure from principals, altered student scores on statewide standardized tests to save their struggling schools from ignominy and to bring a little glory to their bosses.

“Unreasonable pressure,” as the Georgia Office of Special Investigators put it, to achieve “unreasonable targets,” led to a stunning ethical breakdown in the Atlanta schools system. The 10-month investigation, released in July, found educators had altered test scores at 44 schools in 2009. Investigators determined that 178 teachers and principals cheated.

These finding weren’t based on mere statistical anomalies, such as the unusual rate of erasures on this year’s FCAT test sheets that raised suspicions in 14 Florida school districts. Outright confessions were extracted from 82 educators in Atlanta. Six principals invoked the Fifth Amendment.

Atlanta teachers who had been reluctant to go along with the conspiracies faced “a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation.” But the report found that very little of the cheating there could be attributed to what investigators called “monetary incentives” for the individual teachers.

Merit pay, in 2009, wasn’t a factor. Not yet.

New laws in both Georgia and Florida now tie standardized test results to both teacher pay raises and teacher retention.

Hypothetical income differences under Florida’s new merit pay law range from $41,000 a year for a school teacher burdened with a class full of knuckleheads, up to $76,000, even $100,000 by some calculations, if their onetime dummies aces those FCATs.

Merit raises (the only raises permissible under the new Florida law) will ratchet up the temptation, warned Arizona State University professor Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, who has spent years studying the unintended consequences of high-stakes student testing. She said Wednesday that “it’s pretty clear” that the more consequences states tie to the outcome of the standardized tests, particularly merit pay or cash bonuses, the more cheating we’re likely to see.

Amrein-Beardsley led a team that surveyed 3,000 Arizona teachers. In her study, published last year, more than half admitted to manipulating the test scores on the Arizona standardized tests.

Meanwhile, an investigation by USA Today found improvements in standardized test scores too good to be true in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Ohio. Reporters at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Detroit Free Press and Los Angeles Times made similar findings in their respective regions. (Three years of tough-minded reporting by the Atlanta Constitution led to the Georgia investigation.).

But Amrein-Beardsley’s definition of cheating entails more than the blatant stuff uncovered in Atlanta, where teachers would erase the marks inside the bubbles on test sheets and pencil in the correct answers. She talked Wednesday of more subtle tactics. Like teachers, patrolling the room during tests, coaching students or hinting when they’ve made mistakes. Or leaving learning aids visible in the classroom during tests.

More subtle yet, she said, would be the narrowing of the teaching curriculum to only subjects likely to be broached on those all-important money-laden standardized tests and ignoring everything else. From teaching to the test to teaching only to the test.

Amrein-Beardsley expects to see teachers and principals manipulating student enrollments to get rid of slow or disruptive students. She cited an Atlanta school several years ago that jettisoned 80 poor-performing kids who would have dragged down standardized test scores.

Now a monetary reward for good results, or the possibility of getting fired for bad results, will be tied to the tests. “The higher the consequences, the more expulsions,” she predicted.

Most teachers don’t cheat, of course. But FCAT has already warped school curriculums, brought about an epidemic of “teaching to the test,” and created, occasionally, very suspicious test results among some formerly dullard students. Now all those old temptations come attached to dollar signs.

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