chicken scale 0 Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/benimoto/809023665/

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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