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Cheating scandal: A teacher's take

By Timothy Boyle on Jul 15, 2011 03:04 PM

Farmers don't get fatter chickens by measuring them again.

The unfolding story of possible cheating on the 2009 PSSA exam is terrible news. It likely means educators acted unethically. It almost certainly means that the level of trust between the public and schools is even worse than it has been. And it could mean that those who confuse evidence of real learning with standardized test score results will yell even louder about the failings of our schools.

I teach in Philadelphia, have for the past five years. The last four of those years have been at Olney Elementary, a school that has been flagged for suspicious erasure patterns in this report. I can say I have never witnessed any answer erasure in my years there, including 2009. This news saddens me.

The possibility of a cheating scandal is saddening, but we don’t have to let the conversation be focused on whether cheating occurred, or even about whether it is immoral if it did. Instead, we could use this moment to talk about:

  • what education should be.
  • how we know when a child has learned something.
  • what we want our schools to be doing.

We don’t want assessments of student learning that are invalid. That much we should be able to agree on.

If students’ wrong answers on a test are repeatedly and improperly erased and changed to the correct one, then the test becomes invalid. If it is determined that this happened across Pennsylvania in 2009, we’ll all have some serious questions to ask about the important decisions that have been made based on schools’ test scores.

But in my opinion, tests also become invalid when an undue emphasis that is placed on their outcomes leads to a child’s education being built around the review of practice questions taken from the prior exam. This is the true crime of the No Child Left Behind Act and its extraordinary focus on testing. It is making us forget about what teaching and learning really looks like.

A farmer can’t make a chicken heavier by weighing it more. He can feed and care for the chicken, he can pump it full of hormones and chemicals, or he can manipulate the scale. But just weighing the chicken over and over won't produce a different result.

As an education system, we’ve forsaken the inputs, the learning in a child’s education for the outputs, the test score.

That is especially true when it comes to the teaching of children in poverty. Instead of learning social studies and science content during class time, high school students use the Achieve3000 program one block a week to practice test-question reading passages.

During the month preceding the test, teachers are asked to narrow their regular material to focus on teaching, test-taking strategies, and “eligible content” that they know will appear on the test. It has become clear that our testing strategy is not about more exposure to richer content, but about drilling the most common ways to recall only the material that will help scores rise.

I want something better.

I want:

  • project-based learning that allows us to judge students’ learning based on what students can create and add to the world.
  • assessments that tell me where and why a student is wrong, not that they are wrong.
  • parents to experience what their children know, not just hope for good marks on report cards.
  • show-and-tell back for all grades.

There is no better way of determining what students know than seeing what they can produce and explain on their own. But that’s not what we have. And it's not what we are going to get when a student can only be advanced, proficient, basic, or below basic.

Students come into our classrooms yearning to build upon the knowledge they accrue at the park, the dinner table, or playing a game. They come to our rooms with passions. Yet our children are taught to be interested in memorizing vocabulary and turning questions into statements.

Imagine the primary mode of teaching for your son or daughter being drill. Our children deserve to be more than one adjective. Our students deserve to learn through experiencing the world they live in.

As teachers, as parents, and as a society, it is shameful that we have let it come to this. What would be a bigger shame is if we resign ourselves to the belief that it can never get better.

I hope that the emerging threat of a test score cheating scandal in Philadelphia serves as a wake-up call - not for better test security, but for all of us to reclaim the kind of education we really want for our children. If we aim for real learning for our students, cheaters could not touch what our children will know.

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Comments (53)

Submitted by Teach (not verified) on July 15, 2011 4:04 pm


Submitted by Che Che Bradbury (not verified) on July 15, 2011 5:46 pm

Once again, Mr. Boyle, I am proud to call you my colleague and friend. Well done!

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on July 15, 2011 5:33 pm

I wholeheartedly agree, Mr. Boyle. Standardized tests need to stop ruling our classrooms. Students need and deserve real, authentic learning that builds on and expands their experience and interests.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 15, 2011 5:09 pm

If only, if only. I agree with everything you said but I unfortunately do not see a light at the end of the tunnel. We need to have NCLB repealed so that the numbers game can be put to an end. We need support from the state and Washington in the form of funding and programs. Our nation needs to put their money where their mouth is and really make education a priority.

Submitted by Anne T (not verified) on July 15, 2011 6:55 pm

"a wake-up call - not for better test security, but for all of us to reclaim the kind of education we really want for our children. If we aim for real learning for our students, cheaters could not touch what our children will know."

That was the perfect end to your essay. Oh how I long for that very thing. Do we need test scores to show what our class knows? NO! There are so many ways they can show us, none of which involve filling in little bubbles.

Submitted by Anne T (not verified) on July 15, 2011 6:59 pm

"a wake-up call - not for better test security, but for all of us to reclaim the kind of education we really want for our children. If we aim for real learning for our students, cheaters could not touch what our children will know."

That was the perfect end to your essay. Oh how I long for that very thing. Do we need test scores to show what our class knows? NO! There are so many ways they can show us, none of which involve filling in little bubbles.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on July 15, 2011 6:28 pm

I must tip my cap to you Mr. Boyle. You have spoken the truth very eloquently. I agree with everything you said.

I say that as an educator and reading specialist who once served as the coordinator of a reading program back in the day at University City High School. We taught reading authenitcally to the needs and interests of each student and we used authentic assessments to measure reading growth. It is sad to me to see what has happened to the great Art of teaching reading.

I also respect your courage to speak the truth. Maybe this stuff will lead to a return to student centered instruction designed by teachers who are the experts which you are.

I still believe in teacher empowerment and I do believe that day will return.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 15, 2011 6:22 pm

Honestly, it's too bad that this discussion is buried in The Notebook while news of the cheating scandal is all over the mainstream media. Mr. Boyle, you're preaching to the choir on how we want assessment changed from standardization to a better approach. Unfortunately, the public isn't hearing this part.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 15, 2011 7:28 pm

So true

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on July 15, 2011 7:39 pm

Tim--you should submit this as an op-ed to the Inquirer.

Submitted by Christina (not verified) on July 15, 2011 7:58 pm

Show and tell! Show and tell! Show and tell!

Submitted by steves (not verified) on July 15, 2011 8:41 pm

hmmmmm....I'm the "public"...I follow Mr Boyle's columns, and browse the NB.....

I've never been a fan of standardized testing. My GRE score in chemistry was abysmal, but five years later I had a PhD in organic chemistry.from Illinois U-C. About ten years into my career at a huge Philly pharma company, I became interested in HS teaching. I was required to take a standardized test to demonstrate my knowledge of chemistry. I was ranked, not surprisingly, in the top 0.5 percentile.

Both machine-graded tests yielded meaningless results concerning my knowledge of and ability to learn chemistry.

Dr Boyle's dream of

project-based learning that allows us to judge students’ learning based on what students can create and add to the world.
assessments that tell me where and why a student is wrong, not that they are wrong.
parents to experience what their children know, not just hope for good marks on report cards.
show-and-tell back for all grades.

may produce inquiring minds in select children, and disconnection of student performance on the PSSA from teacher assessment may remove the Sword of Damocles from over the heads of professional educators, but the ability to "look exceptional" in an academic world of idiotic bubble-fill tests and equally moronic corporate world "performance evaluations" is an important real-world skill!!


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 15, 2011 8:20 pm

NCLB is being scapegoated. Title I is a major Federal grant for poor children. Tacked onto it is some accountability/measurement in the form of standardized testing. It is general knowledge that test scores do not represent the ultimate goal of learning. They do represent language, logic, and critical thinking abilities however. O.K. so complain to the creators of the PSSA, not NCLB. Better yet, create an improved PSSA. NCLB lets each state create their standardized test. The problem is not the standardized test, but the massive $. Massive $ dictate priorities other than the kids.

What I have had time to read about that is built into Title I/NCLB is pretty reasonable. SIP, parent involvement, all written with serious thoughtful intent. What I see is a total disregard of this. I see staff more concerned about how they look individually than how they work as a team; where no one’s (including the authors’ of NCLB) ideas but their own are acknowledged. $ channeled to empty, ego stoking positions.

My oldest was homeschooled through the first part of 5th grade. When (due to family circumstance) he was “dropped off” at the local PSD public school, he was reading beyond grade level, and has never had trouble with the PSSAs (upper level of advanced). I did very little drill with him, rather critical and creative thinking work. He is not special in any way. Thus I would agree that drilling is counterproductive and does not improve test scores. That is not the test’s fault.

And why all the fuss about the low test scores, or even the possible cheating, when no true educator takes these seriously? Nothing happens when there are low test scores anyway. Stats are manipulated so that low achievement still equates to AYP, or is defended. (Too many $ at stake.) Empty positions, endless professional development (at the cost of materials being sent home with kids), regional Title I sups who collect documents and stats and do no enforcing, are created. “Reorganization” does not mean blaming the teachers. It means serious assessment of the entire team, including administrators; whether the team is working effectively AS A TEAM. For two schools (not on this list) that I’ve observed, in terms of how seriously (in terms of the kids and not appearances) they took NCLB, I would say the test scores are “spot on”.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 15, 2011 9:26 pm

No true educator wants to take them seriously but unfortunately sometimes your job depends on them. It is not the teachers who have made it all about numbers but the administration and ultimately the state and Washington. We can no longer look at each child and do what is best for them. Failure to make the marks set by NCLB make drive the system. To meet the mark people sometimes panic and take the wring road. When it was declared that by 2014 every student in the nation will be on level, and successful teachers lost the right to give each child what they needed. It is unrealistic to think that ALL children can be on level readers or be deemed proficient. All children can achieve to the best of their own personal ability and as teachers that is what we should be striving for each and every day. I am a teacher and a parent of a special education child. I know how hard my child works and I know that he will never be reading on level by the mandated date. I am proud of him for his efforts and I am proud of all of the hard working students I teach every day who may never make that mark either. Don't make it about the numbers. Make teaching once again about the children.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 15, 2011 10:56 pm

Does your pay depend on your students' scores? Is this mentioned specifically in your evaluation? Has there been a teacher fired for his/her class not making a certain test score? NCLB does not ask that teachers be fired. It doesn't fund core curriculum. It is specifically for enrichment for the economically disadvantaged, and requests that for massive $, there be some accountability. 100% (meant to inspire, ha ha) was a goal only. Already President Obama wants to renew Title I, so I guess the timeline can be extended to infinity. The scores are not everything, but I have seen real learning, as supported by strong teamwork, reflected in them. Reading data documented in the SIP, I did see that scores were analyzed to help identify weaknesses. I also saw that these analyses were largely ignored (by the admin, and the author of the SIP, who basically wrote a "no plan".) Thus the admin needs to be included in the evaluation. It seems that that is where the undue pressure, and ludicrous directives originate, not NCLB. Once again management is deflecting responsibility. I would say to them fine then, how about we get rid of NCLB, and Title I, and massive fraud and abuse of taxpayer $? Most of these $ aren't reaching the kids anyway, and I'd be happy with less National Debt!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 16, 2011 9:21 am

100% was a goal but when you don't make the numbers approaching that goal you are definitely penalized. Each year the percentage goal moves up towards that 100% and failure to reach that golden number means that you do not make AYP. Failure to make AYP is constantly looming over the head of everyone in the school. Schools have lost their entire staff. Hard working teachers and support staff have lost their positions because of the numbers. Teachers are hounded and harassed for not making the numbers. We welcome accountability that shows growth in students ability from year to year and that learning is taking place in each and every classroom. Title 1 is a great program used to help students and it affords many schools materials, staff and support they need. NCLB should be revamped and the flaws should be corrected so that it is about getting children what they need and not reaching a goal that may not be achievable.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 16, 2011 11:19 am

Which schools have lost their entire staff? I'd be curious to know, since my evidence is from my neighborhood school. What is supposed to happen when schools don't make AYP, is they are supposed to get more supports and resources. The State has even added the recently passed Voucher bill which allows a child 30% of allotment towards nonpublic costs. "Mandatory reorganization" does not have to be punitive. Punitive measures are only used to create subservient employees. That is a SD problem that should be solved outside of Washington.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 16, 2011 2:06 pm

Schools that are turned into Renaissance Schools or Promise Academies are completely restaffed. Schools that become charters are also restaffed. Teachers who work at these schools can reapply if they wish to but that does not assure them of a job. The extra supports you speak of boil done to administrators brow beating teachers and staff members into becoming robots teaching from scripts and completing paperwork. Allotments will hurt us not help us all they do is take away from the children attending public schools just like the charters and the districts special schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 16, 2011 3:41 pm

Agreed, these are very bad management decisions, all in the name of keeping huge Federal $. I will have to re-read, but I don't believe that mandated reorganization is that specific.

What might your solution be to turning around achievement in schools where underachievement has become the ingrained norm? Understood: narrowing and shoving curriculum into students, or trying to, doesn't work! Who in their right mind would even think it would? It is the SAME as cheating. Solutions have been found, but the REAL problem is what is keeping these from being implemented in the PSD. So the answer must involve some way to reform both the SRC and the PSD. Running away to a charter or nonpublic almost seems easier.

Harder yet, how would you kindly tell some staff, that they need to do their job? Can I cite one teacher, again in my local school, that instructed the kids to organize their own games during gym time, basically leaving them to their own devices? This teacher gave my son a "C" in P.E.; and when asked why (I'm thinking he might have an attitude), told me he had mistaken him for another child. Come the next marking period, he told me he still had a "C" because he simply copied grades from the previous marking period to the current -oops. He is still there "teaching" under the protection of tenure and enjoying all kinds of support from those who don't want to jeopardize their own "careers". It would seem that it is morally more important for a teacher to have a job than to effectively educate "some one else's" children.

Because Pennsylvania has yet to develop what would be considered fair evaluations of teachers, they lost their bid for the "Race to the Top" money. This needs to be done. Is it so impossible? I do understand that currently evaluations are too fraught with political strings to be fair, but something must be created. What would constitute some way to evaluate teachers that is close to fair?

Submitted by another anonymous (not verified) on July 16, 2011 3:02 pm

F Douglass lost their entire staff when, supposedly because of low test scores, the school was "renaissanced" and taken over by Young Scholars. I expect that other 'renaissanced" schools had close to 100% turnover when the takeover group took over.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 18, 2011 10:04 pm

Thanks for the details. I appreciate your info, and especially the Notebook, as I don't have the time to do more than brief research. Indeed, per NCLB, these are some of the options mandated for schools that don't make AYP for 6 years in a row. The State can also be asked to run the school (not much better, I guess). Although the goal was 100% of a state created standard by 2014, I believe AYP is based on yearly improvement. Otherwise my local school could never have made AYP just the previous year with less than 60% proficient/adv. They probably made it by losing 10% of their subgroup that didn't make it the year before (parents transfering, not improved scores.) Anyway, for the schools that were "renaissanced" only time will tell if they are any better. It would be an interesting project for any budding reporter to research what actions were actually done prior to these schools being taken over. What in fact is written in the School Improvement Plans of schools that make AYP vs those that don't? Anything?

Submitted by another anonymous (not verified) on July 19, 2011 6:09 am

It wasn't about School Improvement Plans and AYP -- it was about a history of neglect of a once-proud bastion of creativity and effectiveness in a North Philadelphia neighborhood. Even at the time of the takeover we had a strong staff of teachers, but Douglass had suffered from lack of leadership -- 7 different principals assigned to Douglass in 7 years -- and from other forms of harassment by the regional office.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 19, 2011 8:30 am

Yes, that would be the problem. The principal is supposed to be the leader, "steer the ship". He/She is responsible for the SIP and is supposed to involve, as well as support the teachers as a team in creating it. So, as I thought, NCLB was implemented incorrectly. Being tasked to create a collaborative plan should be a good thing. Poor leadership from "weak" principals was also responsible for the demise of my local school. We also have good teachers, but teachers who are afraid, because the principal fails to support them. Why does this happen? I thought principals were once teachers themselves? I think the central office needs to be evaluated in what they are asking principals to do, as well as if they are supporting their principals in their efforts. Perhaps the disconnect is here.

Submitted by tom-104 on July 19, 2011 10:43 am

The problem is most of those in the central office are not educators. Few have spend a significant amount of time in the classroom. In addition, few if any come out of the Philadelphia School District. As a result we have highly paid bureaucrats making decisions based on spreadsheet projections.

At one of the community meetings which I attended last May, Finance Director Masch (who is the only person who chaired those meetings, which is revealing in itself), spent an hour showing Power Point slides about how the public school budget in being cut and charters schools budget is being increased. He said at one point that teacher Prep time is costing something like $100 million because substitute teachers must be paid to cover classes when teachers have Prep time. When it was pointed out that Prep time is when the students go to specialist teachers for Art, Music, Physical Education, and Computer Science, and elimination of Prep time would lead to the elimination of these subjects, he mumbled he had misspoke. I think this statement was deliberate to sow confusion among the parents.

We have bureaucrats sitting in an office looking at computer spreadsheets to make cuts while being blissfully unaware of, and not really caring, what their decisions mean for education.

The central office needs to be evaluated!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 18, 2011 6:38 pm

All the comments regarding this are true. However, I would be interested in how you all feel about how special ed teachers and their students have been treated in this mess of "everyone must make the goal" and no one can fail. To me any administrator who sincerely believes that a 6th or 7th grader reading or doing math on a 2nd grade level, saddled with learning or emotional disabilites must make the "grade level" goal is a fool and should be forced out of his/her job.

Whether administrators like it or not, children with learning and other disabilities are part of our life. To torture teachers and students so they can claim to be a "turnaround building specialist" is both appalling and immoral. It is not about the adults, it can and must always be about the children.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 18, 2011 9:40 pm

NCLB definitely needs to allow more than 1% of school population as Special Ed students to take an alternative assessment for AYP. I think parents need to get involved, as the administrators are just as disempowered by the massive bureaucracy.

Submitted by Teach (not verified) on July 18, 2011 10:22 pm

Special Ed students and ELLs are enduring legalized torture under the provisions of NCLB.

This seems like such a flagrant civil rights violation that it seems impossible that it was never contested.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on July 19, 2011 7:22 am

I can appreciate your comment. I taught reading to students at that level for many years back in the day at U.C.H.S. I was the coordinator of a diagnostic - prescriptive reading program designed to meet the needs of those type of students. We placed those students with 2nd & 3rd grade reading levels in classes with a maximum class size of 10. I had special ed students, ELL students and dyslexic students in the same class and they all had regular English, too, in a heterogeneous setting.

Every gain for those students comes with a struggle. There are no quick fixes and it takes years to move them to higher levels. But those students loved those classes taught by sensitive caring teachers who knew what we were doing. We made it fun and non threatening.

How do I feel about those type of students being taught test preparation instead of being given instruction at their instructional level designed to meet their individual needs and interests? I think it is criminal and a case of malpractice.

The problem is tht that the vast majority of administrators do not know anything about reading ability and cognitive growth. In short -- they do not know what they are doing.

It is sad.... and we need a Sea Change in our school system.

Submitted by K.R. Luebbert (not verified) on July 19, 2011 11:15 am

I wrote the comment below on another thread because every year I cannot stand what some of my kids with IEPs have to go through during testing. It is very demoralizing for them, and I believe, illegal.

As a teacher, I have always wondered why parents who have kids with IEPs that are FORCED to read and take a grade-level test--have not sued the state for breaking your childrens' IEPs. IEPs MUST be adhered to--for example, if your child is in 8th grade, but has an IEP that requires he be tested on a 6th grade level--the state is BREAKING A FEDERAL LAW by requiring the child to take the 8th grade test! This is a class-action lawsuit waiting to happen. I do sympathize with my IEP kids who struggle so hard to do the grade-level test, though--some of them get quite discouraged.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on July 16, 2011 9:04 am

 "Nothing happens when there are low test scores anyway".   I don't know how you can say this when dozens of schools in Philadelphia have had their teaching staff reconstituted and have been converted into charters or Promise Academies.   In many more schools the curriculum has been narrowed, remedial programs of questionable value have been implemented, and students are endlessly drilled on test taking skills.   Principals and teachers who fail to adapt are driven out or are at risk.   If schemes that tie teacher evaluation and compensation to PSSA test scores prevail we can expect all these trends to intensify.

No one is suggesting Title I should be abolished, only that it is need of major reform.   I, for one, think that one positive feature of NCLB is holding schools accountable based on the performance of key sub groups and not just the aggregate.   The questions are how to we evaluate performance...shouldn't we use multiple measurements and not rely simply on standardized tests.   How do we improve school performance?   Are punitive measures and privatization the way to go?   What about empowering parents, students and teachers to change their schools?  

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on July 16, 2011 10:57 am

Besides the ramifications listed by Ron, the emphasis on the PSSA has revamped high school. At "empowerment" schools, we have to follow a 7 step lesson regardless of the appropriateness of "crunching" the 7 steps into every lesson. Everything is to be tied to "eligible" content which are tested skills. Students are to be "PSSA ready" but not ready for college / career / life. Yes, I can find ways for students to "see themselves" in the curriculum but it is usually by not following the SDP planning and scheduling timeline and risking being told that I'm not being compliant.

To move beyond merely evaluating a school quantitatively (e.g. PSSA scores, an inflated graduation rate, an other numbers they can "crunch"), we have to put more emphasis on what will prepare students for life/college/career. The series by Geoff and Christina in the Notebook addresses this through the senior project. Why isn't there more emphasis on it? It amazes me that with the money pumped into "empowerment" schools over the past two years, there was NOTHING done about senior projects. They are often a joke - a disservice to students because the requirements are so weak. When they were first introduced, it was to be a service learning project/research. That has melted into a weak "research" paper and power point presentation at many schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 16, 2011 11:58 am

I have seen the debilitating effects of noncompliance threats. I'm sure it's draining to have to try and constantly work around all the nonsensical directives. I HAVE seen these.

Also, I agree with you about the rich potential of senior projects both at middle school and high school level. As a parent I pumped my own major $ into bringing a teaching artist in for the senior (8th grade) class for their project. Her assistant was doing his h.s. senior SL project. Laugh with me, so I don't cry: The teacher was afraid to let the teaching artist keep a copy of the finished projects for her reference, and wouldn't let the kids take their (video) projects home, or even to show them because she was afraid that she would get in trouble and lose her job! Yet showing them is the very thing that would build support for her work. Sad over and again.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 16, 2011 10:58 am

"Principals and teachers who fail to adapt are driven out or are at risk. If schemes that tie teacher evaluation and compensation to PSSA test scores prevail we can expect all these trends to intensify."

I have yet to see teacher compensation tied to test scores. I would say these negative things happen because of power politics, which of course all the big $ brings about.

I feel justified in saying "nothing happens" using my school as an example, and guessing that this also happens elsewhere. For three years straight, it did not make AYP. Test results suggested the African American subgroup needed help with literacy. Instead of devising any coordinated plan to address the cultural blocks that might be occurring (or any plan at all), the admin decided to interpret this as a minor, unimportant reason why they did not make AYP. After all they "almost" made it. In fact, they were rewarded by being able to use a greater percentage of their substantial Title I funds for professional development (which they love, it's "tea time".) Needless to say, it was "business as usual". Their inertia was rewarded when because of attrition from unhappy parents, the number of Special Ed students fell beneath what was required for a subgroup, allowing their test scores to be left out. Magically they made AYP. This past year they again made AYP, at less than 60% proficient/advanced (not much changed over the years.) No one has been driven out because of being so far from 100% for so many years. Contrarily, we lost the teachers whose students had over 80% (class specific stats) because of inner politics.

Staff reconstitution is from inner politics, using NCLB as a shield, or even not. Our best teachers were lost, because of lack of support from admin. Their hard work, especially those who worked as a tight team, WAS reflected in the test scores. Charters have yet to prove their merit, as has the very popular SLA. We will see if they will grow as quickly in numbers now that the State is no longer reimbursing the PSD for them.

Believe it or not empowerment is built into the School Improvement Plan, as dictated by Title I. Here, there is a sensible guide to constructing a highly individualized program for each school BY each school. Tell me why schools utterly ignore this? In the end, I agree with you. Title I/NCLB is a mess right now, but more so the PSD. I would suggest that it is the juggling for promotion and desire to look good egged on by the huge $, not the dictates of NCLB that are at fault. Yes,$ should follow each child, not a statistical level of poverty in each school. Merit $ should be given to the TEAM for improvement of achievement of each designated child, as measured by a standardized evaluation (better if multi faceted), by a THIRD PARTY (if there are big $, there should not be ANY internal evaluation). The standardized test is only one measure, to be used as a tool, not an end-all in itself. Teaching to the test is just like cheating. It defeats the ultimate aim.

I would guess a majority has not actually read what is written into Title I seeing that so much is ignored. The main problem is not what is written, it is the integrity (which includes understanding) with which it is being implemented, and that there is no true third party involved.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on July 19, 2011 8:43 am

Ron, without empowering parents, students and teachers, there will be no greatness in our schools.

That is part of the democratic imperative for our schools which I have written so much about. Democracy is the sine qua non for greatness in our schools and fulfillment of our collective mission -- to educate each and every student to his or her full potentiality both cognitively and affectively.

We need people like you, the Notebook team and the good educators who speak out on this site to keep speaking up about what really are the "best practices" in education. I enjoy reading your comments and those of others.

Submitted by Geoffrey (not verified) on July 15, 2011 8:06 pm

This series attempts to address many of the concerns raised by Mr. Boyle.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 16, 2011 12:02 am

As usual, Mr. Boyle hits the nail on the head. We really want to ask ourselves this: Will doing well on standardized tests really help our students become knowledgeable citizens of the world? What is the point of all this testing and teaching to the test????

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 16, 2011 8:24 am

While I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Boyle's "wants" for school, the reality is PSSA scores for middle school students determine which high school they will be able to attend in Philadelphia. 3rd grade scores determine if a student is admitted to Masterman for 5th grade. The PSSA, in this context, is high stakes testing for individual students. This is an extremely tracked school district. A student may meet all requirements for a magnet school but not have high enough scores and be denied. This further complicates the allegations of cheating since so much weight is put on the test scores for high school admission. (Masterman is another issue - who gets in seems to have as much to do with background/connections as with scores...)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 16, 2011 2:22 pm

And this case of Masterman only confirms that test scores are but one dimension. I'm not sure that Masterman, as a school, is quite as effective as believed. First, there is racial diversity, but not intellectual diversity. They all are good test takers and extremely good at coloring within the lines. Is it wise to have such homogeneity?

More importantly, why should there be only a few "good" (even if only perceived) schools that parents feel pressured to try and get their kids into? Remind me again why we have public schools?

Submitted by passerby (not verified) on July 16, 2011 7:13 pm

This is a great blogpost. I couldn't agree more with what Tim Boyle has written here - though at the same time, I can't help but wonder how the style of assessment he has suggested here can possibly be implemented on a statewide or national scale. I just don't know that it's cost-effective or feasible. While I'd like to think that changing attitudes towards education will lead to better schools, I still think there's a great need for some kind of objective evaluation. NCLB might be a broken mess, but the notion that schools need to be held accountable on a consistent basis is sound.

As someone who recently graduated from PA schools, I just don't believe that the PSSAs are such a difficult examination that it requires hours and hours of mind-numbing drills and review questions in order to pass. It's not a test designed to trip kids up. It's a straightforward test of basic reading comprehension and one's ability to write a coherent paragraph.

ELLs aside, I don't see why every kid in PA shouldn't be able to pass this test. This is basic reading and writing, and whatever one's views on education, these are skills that every child ought to have, regardless of their school's location or family income. I know there's a lot wrong with our schools, but the tragedy for me is that kids aren't able to pass a relatively easy test, not that there IS a test at all.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 16, 2011 11:24 pm

Come teach and you will soon understand all too well. What you dismiss as an "easy test" is extremely hard when it's several grade levels above the level the child taking it is still at. Social promotion has been going on for years and the administration doesn't seem likely to stop it any time soon, especially with the money problems looming up. I agree that the skills are essential, but too many children don't receive any help at home. On top of this we have an administration that dumps the latest magic bullet instead of practicial solutions that might actually help. You come off sounding naive.

Submitted by passerby (not verified) on July 17, 2011 10:56 am

I understand that many kids are grade levels behind where they should be. I wasn't trying to say that every kid should be able to pass this test given the current state of our schools - I was trying to say that the mode of assessment, whether the PSSAs or something Boyle is suggesting here, shouldn't matter because ideally, every kid should have these skills regardless. I understand that reality is nowhere near this point, but forgive me for being an idealist.

Submitted by Christina (not verified) on July 17, 2011 1:00 pm

The mode of assessment DOES matter. My Nonna could not tell you how to make her kick a$% tomato sauce, but with all the right stuff in front of her the sauce would magically bubble from her huge silver pot (the secret had to do with her garden canned tomatoes, FYI). She'd be someone who would certainly know those "skills" needed to "pass" the PSSA, but she'd never do it the way the test wanted her to. This has nothing to do with who our students our (urban versus suburban, English as a first language or English as a third)... It has to do with the wonderful human-ness that we all claim. No one shows what they know the same way, and politicians using tests to measure what students know is not reliable or valid. Still, Passerby, I am with you on the idea of embedding skills that the PSSA wishes it could measure in our teaching, but I will never say that ideally everyone should pass the PSSA in a perfect world. In a perfect world, which is now, students all over this state must be given myriad ways to prove they know something, teachers should have the freedom to collaborate over grades and disciplines to get there, and no one should take this test seriously ever again.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 17, 2011 1:59 pm

Exactly. Most teachers do actually know how to teach, how to assess, and how to allow each student to grow to their own potential. If allowed to actually do my job, my classroom might not be perfect but it would be a whole lot more than memorization and test prep.

We are told we have to use research-based methods, and what research shows us increasingly is that testing until we are blue in the face is a disservice to our entire society.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 19, 2011 2:39 pm

I agree that we over-test. However, if education is about empowering students, I think it is important to work to ensure that students have a foundation in the skills they will need to be empowered in our society. Strong literacy and numeracy skills are among those skills. As a social studies teacher, I have had very few students over the years unable to engage in critical debates about key issues in class. The thing that has proven the major difference in their ability to succeed beyond the classroom is the ability to engage in those ideas independently, which requires strong literacy and numeracy skills. Almost all of my students could debate the recent school budget situation when I framed it in class. The difference, when those students get outside the classroom, will be whether or not they can interpret they debate themselves, without the assistance of a teacher. That requires literacy and numeracy skills, and it was painful to see what happened when I gave the students real-world examples of the types of sources they would need to be able to interpret to be engaged citizens.

I think education is about providing opportunities, and failing to instill basic numeracy and literacy in students after 12-13 years of public education is not really providing opportunities for the students. I think the PSSA is a mess and often misused, but that shouldn't distract from the fact that when students are consistently scoring Below Basic on that test, something is severely wrong. Yes, sometimes students aren't invested and so forth, but unfortunately, I've found students' standardized test scores to be a better barometer of their literacy and numeracy skills than most other factors I've found. Part of it is human nature, we have a hard time rendering an objective assessment of others who we've grown attached to.

To use the analogy of someone who can make a great tomato sauce: The person who makes a great tomato sauce can make their family happy at dinnertime and perhaps gain employment working for someone else. If that person builds strong literacy and numeracy skills, they have a much better opportunity owning the restaurant themselves and teaching others to make the sauce when they can't be there. Building strong reading and math skills doesn't diminish from other talents -- it just gives students more opportunities to seize on those talents, and TRULY empower them.

Submitted by Christina (not verified) on July 19, 2011 9:22 pm

My friend, "the skills they will need to be empowered in our society" are not on the PSSA. Period. This is 2011. The testing culture was never created to empower students. It was created to highlight deficit and failure, and reward good test takers. In our country, the SATs are used as a gatekeeper to college, but even that test is frought with issues. My sister ran a very lucrative tutoring business that coached students about how to improve their SAT scores. They did not develop skills that would empower them in society, they just learned the tricks of that test. In the beginning of the high stakes movement, there was a push to teach students the tricks of the tests, show them they are like a game, etc etc etc That is complete BS at this point.

And one more thing, Nonna never wanted to run a restaurant. She planted saved seeds from year to year, planted 50 tomato plants, 20 pepper plants, radicchio, onions, garlic, basil... She worked outside of the home very successfully until her retirement. She spoke two languages and read every night at the kitchen table, in front of all of us...

I agree strong math and reading education is vital. But using the PSSA as a measure of those skills is faulty at best. And in 2011 in Philly, we are doing a huge injustice to our students by making instruction for this test the focus of our schools. I say, let it go.

I do not want this test to become what we do in school, which is what has happened. Barbara Kingsolver writes, "People's dreams are made out of what they do all day. The same way a dog that runs after rabbits will dream of rabbits. It's what you do that makes your soul, not the other way around." This test has no place in my soul. Do you really want to carve out a space for it in yours?

Submitted by Timothy Boyle on July 17, 2011 2:32 pm

 I believe any teacher is more invested in assessment they make themselves. I know when a kid turns a shoebox, some wires, switches, light bulbs and D-Cells into a "lit room" I feel great, The student usually does too.

I don't feel anything all that rewarding when get positive results back on the PSSA, I know my students don't either.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 18, 2011 1:47 pm

Great discussion, but myopic.

To repeat my earlier post, I've been through the entire American educational system, K-Postdoc. I had a 20 year career as a research scientist (chemist) in the pharmaceutical industry. My colleagues around the country and I never encountered an assessment system (in academia or industry) that had a goal other than making a superior (boss, teacher, department head, taxpayer, investor) look good and feel secure. Enhancement of learning or performance improvement was a (markedly) secondary goal. These assessment system characteristics seemed more extreme outside of academia. The idea was CYA, make everyone happy, get the money, and get back to work.

The only assessment system that has any meaning (imho) is self- assessment.

I would advise people who cannot live or work under such a system to adapt.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 18, 2011 10:39 pm

As a research chemist, then, you would have had specific tests which produced specific results. Myopic, but valuable when used correctly in the whole picture. PSSAs are limited, but valuable. The destructive pressure is that $ are being tacked onto the scores. Indeed, as you point out, a way to keep control of these $. Of course they are your $, as well as everyone else's; we all pay taxes. How else might you keep control of these? Unfortunately the CYA and "make the boss happy", means, in this case, ignore the needs of the children. Title I has degenerated into the destructive realm of Welfare.

Submitted by Teach (not verified) on July 18, 2011 3:18 pm

Glad you're the only one who can see clearly.

Submitted by ReenReb (not verified) on July 26, 2011 8:42 am

Sometimes I wonder if all the standardized testing is really about measuring students educational growth or a management tool for assessing and judging a teachers ability to educate at that particular grade level. Here lies another falasey in believing that all 3rd, 5th, and 8th grades are created equally. Isn't it possible that less senior, less favored teachers might have the responsibility for the more challenging students?
Back in the day when I was being educated in teacher methodology it was all about baseline data and post intervention data. From a special education point of view wouldn't it be better to view individual success, with expectations that are reasonable and realistic not with the intent of limiting a student's educational growth but to ease their frustration, perhaps less frustration would yield less emotional outbursts within the classroom. I am not saying that students should be excluded from their grades core curriculum, yes they need to be exposed to that material, they may struggle with reading and math skills yet be quite capable of participating and learning from "hands on science" activities or have an interest in learning Social Studies. I am a strong believer in "direct teaching", small or reduced classrooms with all school based staff being responsible to engage with students. Let's spend less time completing written tasks for someone at a regional or district level to review and get back to meaningful "on task" time with the students. Let's utilize all the school staff to get into the classrooms and assist the regular education teacher. The responsibilities of the regular education teacher is enormous, a room comprised of 25-33 different learners, some with significant special education needs and or some where English is their Second Language is a daunting task, Change in my opinion ,as slow as it sounds, comes one child at a time. It comes when we're willing to put in the time to take a child where we find them and try to leave them maybe a bit stronger with their Math skills or perhaps a level or two higher with their Literacy but always filled with the hope that they can learn and with the joy of learning. If not that, than maybe we'll get a smile or two along the way.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 26, 2011 9:22 am

I completely share your viewpoint. I wish more people would understand education the way that you do. Great post.

Submitted by Doug Hering (not verified) on October 4, 2011 5:48 pm

I love your statement: "As an education system, we’ve forsaken the inputs, the learning in a child’s education for the outputs, the test score."

All is lost when we disregard the person as a learner and the experience of learning. Sure, there may be some base standards that apply that can be tested (although perhaps not with one high pressure test in which kids and parents don't know if the scores are real or not), but the whole of learning has little to do with what an annual standardized test can measure.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 23, 2014 2:22 am

Already President Obama wants to renew Title I, so I guess the timeline can be extended to infinity. The scores are not everything, but I have seen real learning, as supported by strong teamwork, reflected in them. Reading data documented in the SIP, I did see that scores were analyzed to help identify weaknesses. I also saw that these analyses were largely ignored (by the admin, and the author of the SIP, who basically wrote a "no plan".) 

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