Magazine article Newsweek

When Teachers Are Cheaters

Magazine article Newsweek

When Teachers Are Cheaters

Article excerpt

This spring has been a season of embarrassment for the nation's public schools. In suburban Potomac, Md., an elementary-school principal resigned last month after parents complained their children were coached to give the right answers on state tests. In Ohio, state officials are investigating charges of cheating by teachers at a Columbus elementary school that was recently praised by President Clinton for raising test scores. And in New York City, more than four dozen teachers and administrators from 30 schools stand accused of urging their students to cheat on various standardized city and state tests.

It's bad enough when kids get kicked out for cheating. But as the school year ends, an alarming number of teachers and principals face charges of fixing the numbers on high-stakes tests that determine everything from whether an individual kid gets promoted to an entire district's annual budget. Although there are no firm statistics, school officials agree that the problem has become much worse in the past few years as more states have adopted testing as a way to audit national and state educational standards. In theory, the exams ensure that teachers pass on the right lessons. The problem is that high scores --not high standards --have become the holy grail.

In some parts of the country, educators can get bonuses of as much as $25,000 if they raise their students' scores. In other places, school officials can lose their jobs if their students don't produce the right numbers. And the repercussions extend beyond the classroom, even affecting real-estate values. Scores have become "the only exchangeable currency we have any more about whether schools are bad or good," says Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut.

Even the best tests are designed with much more modest goals. They're supposed to be diagnostic tools --to help pinpoint gaps in learning. They don't provide a full picture of a child's --or a school's --accomplishments any more than a single blood test can supply all the data a doctor needs to treat a patient. And they can have a significant error rate, says George Madaus, a professor of education and public policy at Boston College. "You can't use these tests by themselves to make any decisions," he says.

That hasn't stopped policymakers from trying to use tests as a quick fix for all that ails public schools. And the pressure quickly trickles down to principals and teachers --who are supposed to be role models. No one's condoning cheating, but test critics see it as the inevitable side effect of score mania. "Cheating is simply one more piece of a dangerous fallout from the politicians and bureaucrats placing too much emphasis on standardized tests," says Peter Sacks, the author of "Standardized Minds," a critical look at the testing movement. …

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