Live by the test, die by the test – but don’t teach to the test?

President Barack Obama seemed to give a nod to both supporters and opponents of test-based teacher evaluations in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

“Teachers matter,” he said. “So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”

Obama said a good teacher “can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000,” a reference to a recent study by economists at Harvard and Columbia, who concluded that effective teachers have a long-lasting positive impact on the life prospects of their students.

Here’s the problem. Most of the proposals to “reward the best” and “replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn” rely on student test scores to determine which teachers are effective. The administration has pushed that approach through its Race to the Top grants and, more recently, through waivers to No Child Left Behind Act requirements. It’s the entire premise behind the economists’ study that Obama cited.

As Dana Goldstein writes in the Nation, “It can be difficult to balance test-based accountability with the sort of ‘creative, passionate’ teaching the president says he supports, especially if teachers are so worried about raising test scores that they teach-to-the-test or — as we’ve unfortunately seen around the country — cheat, or are pressured by administrators to do so.”

Of course, it’s easy to bash teaching to the test; almost as easy as bashing teachers. Let’s just say this: Starting this spring, Indiana students will be retained in third grade if they don’t pass the new test called IREAD-3. Let’s hope third-grade teachers are teaching students the skills they need to pass that test.

The president didn’t describe any new programs to improve teaching, and the blueprint released by the White House with the speech was similarly vague. Continue reading

Cheating scandals: Who will be next?

The news about the cheating scandal in Atlanta’s public schools just keeps getting worse. Teachers changed students’ answers on standardized tests from wrong to right, according to a state investigation. Students were allowed to look up answers or copy from classmates. Administrators created a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” and pressured teachers to cheat.

Coming on the heels of revelations of possible cheating in Washington, D.C., and alongside concerns from Pennsylvania and other states, the news raises obvious questions: Could it happen here in Indiana? Has it happened here already?

“Because of Atlanta, the media and policymakers are going back and looking at concerns raised about their states,” Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing told the Associated Press. “This is the top issue. When you see a story like this and see the incredible impact of the confessions, you start to look and say, ‘Hey, is there something comparable going on here?’ ”

Officials with the Indiana Department of Education are taking the idea seriously.

They recently asked CTB McGraw-Hill, the state’s primary testing contractor, to conduct an “erasure study” to look for suspicious trends of wrong answers being corrected on state tests, as happened in Atlanta, D.C. and Philadelphia.

Back in the spring, officials announced that department staff would make unannounced school visits during the March 2011 ISTEP-Plus tests, to make sure test security protocols were observed.

And a March 30 memo to the State Board of Education recounted 11 “recent violations of proper testing procedures.” Most involved teachers who devised lessons based on actual content of state exams, or who encouraged students to change answers from wrong to right.

In response, the state board gave preliminary approval in July to a rule intended to put in place stronger test-security procedures and establish procedures and penalties for security breaches. The action started a process of review and comment that will lead to adoption of the proposed rule as state law.

ISTEP-Plus is Indiana’s high-stakes test, but until now, the stakes have been high for schools but not for individuals. That’s about to change. Soon third-graders will be retained if they don’t pass the state reading test. Teachers’ salaries and job-retention prospects will depend partially on student test scores.

When there’s pressure to do whatever it takes to raise test scores, it’s not surprising that some folks will do, well, whatever it takes.

New state tests coming; will they change the game?

The big news last week on the national education front concerned the U.S. Department of Education’s award of $330 million for the development of the “next generation of tests,” computer-based assessments tied to the Common Core State Standards.

Two consortia get the money: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), made up of 25 states and the District of Columbia, which gets $170 million; and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium, a coalition of 31 states, awarded $160 million.

Indiana is one of 11 states leading the PARCC effort to develop the new tests, which are supposed to be on line by 2014.

“I am convinced that this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in announcing the funding from the government’s Race to the Top program. “For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents and teachers will know if students are on track for colleges and careers.”

News coverage generally reflected Duncan’s optimism. Stories in the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor described the initiative as a major step beyond the high-stakes “bubble” tests that came to define the No Child Left Behind era. Continue reading