Dallas schools (among other districts) are currently being investigated for possible cheating on the state standardized tests, the TAKS. The TAKS is the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, and it is a test with high consequences. Starting in the third grade, public school students are required to take at least two TAKS every year until finishing high school. At certain grade levels, certain tests can restrict them from moving to the next grade. For instance, if students do not pass the third-grade reading TAKS, they cannot be promoted to fourth-grade. Similarly, high schoolers are not allowed to graduate until they have passed all of their TAKS.
The pressure of performance is bad enough -- students feel the pressure to pass, teachers feel the pressure to have high passing rates, administrators feel the pressure to have high ratings for their schools -- but now the geniuses from the state have decided to throw money into the mix. They're calling it "incentive pay." For some people, this apparently has become incentive to cheat.
Much like the district's spending (see my last post), the tests had not been very well supervised, until recently. Last year, someone finally woke up and said, "Hey! Maybe we should send someone to monitor these schools, and make sure the teachers aren't actually taking these tests!" In some schools, this wasn't too far from what was really happening. Last summer, stories started emerging about teachers giving the whole class answers during tests, giving nonverbal hints (I can just imagine the teacher standing in front of a student's desk, clearing her throat noisily until the student finally bubbles in the correct answer), and even changing answers on the tests at the end of the day.
For anyone who doesn't know the sad story of Wilmer-Hutchins, this is an entire school district that was dissolved because of unethical practices. An extremely large percentage of their schools were determined to have been cheating on the 2005 TAKS, and they were basically given the death penalty and absorbed into the Dallas Independent School District. Now I am in NO way condoning cheating in any form, but I have to say that these teachers at Wilmer-Hutchins were not very bright in the way they went about their efforts. I mean, if you're going to cheat, you do it subtly, so as not to draw attention. In the schools that red-flagged the monitors, not only did the passing rate go up from about 50% to 100% -- suspicious enough in its own right -- but every kid aced the test! These students were not just passing the test, they were getting every single question correct -- EVERY STUDENT! What did these teachers expect? To have George W. Bush himself come down and give them the Medal of Honor?
"Congratulations, Texas teachers. Whatever strategery you've used with these kids has caused their grades to go nucular!"
Similar investigations were going on down in the Houston district last year. Now THIS year, many Dallas schools are under investigation. From what I've read, this seems to be more a high school problem than elementary school, but the outcome will affect us all. In fact, about a month ago, there was a Dallas high school student that was quoted in the papers, telling reporters exactly how one could cheat on the high school TAKS. And according to his method, it would not be difficult at all.
Now the state governor's office has proposed giving a bonus to teachers whose students show a marked increase in performance -- i.e. higher TAKS scores. Bonuses up to $10,000 per teacher! Now you tell me, you don't think this is going to inspire even MORE cheating??!?
If so many people were already cheating, just to bring their passing rates up and make themselves look better as educators, how many more are now going to succumb to the temptation of cold hard cash? It's all about the Benjamins, baby.
Personally, it makes me almost physically ill that people -- ANYONE, whether they be students, teachers, principals -- would feel the need to stoop to cheating on these tests. Yes, the pressure can be intense. Yes, there are a lot of eyes upon our programs, judging us by our passing rates. But that doesn't excuse the behavior of these cheaters.
Who really pays the price when an entire school district is dissolved? I feel bad for those students, but at least they are still going to school. The real losers are the honest teachers, those who did NOT break the rules, but who have to suffer the consequences regardless.
I'm guessing that the people that cheat on the TAKSes are the same people that cheat on their taxes. I mean, po-tay-to, po-tah-to...