Friday, September 9, 2016

Testing Still Incentivizing Cheating

Yesterday out of Texas we have a new version of an old story-- a school that found a creative-ish new way to cheat on the Big Standardized Test.

This is a predictable and, at this point, oft-noted phenomenon. If you take a bunch of numbers and tie them to high stakes, people will look for ways to manipulate those numbers. Which is kind of the point of making those numbers high stakes. But some people will manipulate the numbers with legitimate okay-by-the-rules, and some people will find other ways to do it. If a plant manager is told that everybody's bonus depends on low injury-on-the-job numbers, there are many ways to keep those numbers down, and only some of them have anything to do with making the workplace safer. Refusing to let anyone report injuries will work, too.

So NCLB ushered in the era of high stakes testing, and within a few years, the cheating began. With 2014 as the deadline to get 100% students above average, American schools were being steadily divided into two groups-- schools that were failing and schools that were cheating. It is of course particularly tempting to cheat when it's impossible to win by legitimate means.

Some cheaters were caught and suffered huge consequences, like the Atlanta teachers who had their lives and careers trashed. Some large cheating scandals, like the one in DC under former honcho She Who Will Not Be Named, don't seem to affect anyone's reputation in the slightest. And those are just the obvious examples. Other schools find less obviously-naughty ways to game the numbers, from the widespread charter practice of pushing out low scoring students (Success Academy got-to-go list, anyone?) to the many public schools that decided to spend less time on education and more time on test prep. Heck, we can go all the way back to the Texas Miracle under future Bush Secretary of Ed Rod Paige was actually a fraud (my personal favorite technique-- holding a potentially low-scoring student back for one year, then leapfrogging two year ahead so that they skipped the testing year entirely).

This story out of Texas is a new variation-- cheating with a side of privacy violation and abuse of data. The plan was actually pretty simple. In fact, I'll guarantee you that the Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology is certainly not the only school to think of it, and probably not the only school to do it.

They just used the data to identify students whose numbers were probably going to be bad on the BS Test. Then they called those families and reminded them that they have the right to opt out of testing. Three dozen parents did so, helping the school skew its numbers a little higher.

The only nice thing you can say on the school's behalf is that nobody has popped up to try to justify this, which is appropriate because not only is straight-up cheating, but it's also using testing data to single students and their families out for not-so-nice special treatment. I have no quarrel with opting out, which is every parents' right and just generally a good idea because there are no useful benefits in the BS Tests. But to target some families like this is very Not Cool.

You will never hear me speak in support of cheating. You will never hear me say that the odious and indefensible BS Tests justify cheating. But while high stakes testing does not justify cheating, it certainly incentivizes it.If you tell your child that you'll give them fifty dollars for a rose, thinking that will encourage said child to start a garden and plant a rose bush and learn how to care for and water it, even though you live in a land frozen tundra-- well, you can't be surprised when your child goes and snags a rose from a greenhouse instead of teaching themselves horticulture.

One of the foundational theories of reformsterism is that rewards and punishment will incentivize the desired behavior in schools. By choosing a bad proxy (BS Test scores standing in for actual student achievement) they've created a system of perverse incentives. This doesn't make cheating okay, but you would have to be an idiot to be surprised that the system spawns cheaters.


  1. "You will never hear me speak in support of cheating."

    I dunno, you might hear me. If I were a low-income parent with a child in a "failing" school and my school's/teacher's choices were (a) facing closure/termination due to poor scores, (b) relentless drill-and-kill test prep to try to improve said scores or (c) cheating, I'm not sure that (c) is an unethical choice.

  2. The breaking Wells Fargo scandal was caused by intense pressure on employees to "make" certain sales numbers. Many employees responded by creating new accounts without customer authorization in order to charge those customers overdraft fees. Same phenomenon as teachers and school administrators cooking the books to make the test scores better.

    The flaw is in creating such high stakes that depend upon something that is so easily manipulated. This alone is reason enough to get rid of these high stakes tests.

  3. I can say that this same thing was happening in MoCo schools and HoCo schools for numerous years. Some of the special ed parents that I know were a little angry that their children were being excluded. This was before PARCC. Now it seems that (at least in HoCo), special ed kids are being forced to take the stupid test.

    1. It's happening in MoCo as well. And on the Facebook Opt-Out pages for MD, there have been numerous stories of IEP's altered so that kids are taking PARCC w/o accommodations to boot. >:( Parents are having to go to schools and review IEP's before PARCC testing windows as some of them have reportedly been altered without parent knowledge.

    2. Our Super in HoCo was a MoCo Principal or VP and was caught excluding special ed students from the MSA because she didn't want them to mess with the school's high testing awful...and that's probably why our BoEd hired her 5 years ago. In HoCo it's ALL about the test scores and AP scores, AP classes, SAT. In fact, this year they are giving the PSAT 8/9 to ALL 9th graders so that they will be aware of what AP classes they should look forward to taking. I'm REFUSING the PSAT 8/9 this year and I don't want my daughter to be taking 4 AP classes per year. It's HS and she is still a child....there is so much more to HS than being force fed a lousy curriculum so that a test score looks good. It is a heartless world for children these days. Wish I could afford to send my kids to one of the Friends Schools in the area.

  4. Same scenario here in the DC Metro:

  5. There was educator cheating on tests long before the NCLB Act on high-, low-, and no-stakes tests. Eliminating stakes will not stop the cheating; but it probably will diminish any detection of the cheating, because little attention is paid to how no-stakes tests are administered or reported.