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Testing, Testing

Did you all see this article in the Times today, The article is about school administrators who have been caught cheating, adjusting the state tests taken by their students, so that the school would be seen as making better annual yearly progress. More generally, it is about the question of whether high stakes testing — where teacher tenure, teacher bonus, school funding are all tied to how students do on state tests — is leading to more cheating by adults. The article is not entirely clear on that — it gives compelling recent anecdotes of cheating, but one study says the rate of adult cheating is 1-3%, another says more like 4-5% — and it is not self evident that either of those ranges is a big increaase. And yet this extreme case does open up, again, the question of what high stakes testing does and does not do.

Lets grants that some measure of performance, some standard, is a good idea. Lets also grant that too many kids leave high school unprepared for life and work, and that is not counting the students who don’t make it that far. So testing is an effort to deal with a real problem. But what concerns me is that it is a solution that spawns its own set of problems — state standards for one, cheating by adults perhaps, constriction of school focus. And it seems to me we jumped into this national testing frenzy, we changed everything before thinking through what we were doing. Education became a political issue and therefore got broad solutions that allowed politicians to claim they were being active, doing something. But then kids are caught in the whiplash — even if NCLB fades and testing changes or ebbs, suddenly teachers, students, librarians parents will have a whole new regime, a new program, a new set of rules.

We are lurching around, toying with kids — as if K-12 education were one more corporation where we could try out a new management strategy — Six Sigma, Total Quality Management — whatever sweeps the MBA programs. But it is not, it is the lives of young people and there is something fundamentally irresponsible in how we tinker without fully considering the consequences of our adult choices. We shoudl test how testing works before imposing tests on kids in 50 states — or we should have. Now we are in the mess and cheating our way out.


  1. Marc,

    In our area, not necessarily my school district, we hear of principals who would not think twice about tinkering with a student’s test score. Sometimes merely changing a few answers on just one or two students can mean the difference between a higher or lower grade for the school (in Michigan, schools are graded).

    Your post is, pardon the phrase, on the money. I think, however, readers should factor in the desperation that the economy has foisted upon the process. A principal knows about the political process that has his or her school being evaluated. The principal also knows that the economy is forcing good families out of Michigan. Consequently the school is losing the per student funding for each student that moves out of state. While a school’s grade has very little bearing on whether that school is a good school or a bad school for any prospective student, the perception is that, in Michigan, an “A” school is better than a “B” school. If a principal wishes to attract new families to replace those families who are leaving, his or her school better be an “A” school. If you see that two students in a certain group have scores that will keep your school from making adequate yearly progress and if you also see that changing two answers on each student’s test will bump them up into the next category (and bump your school from a “B” school to an “A” school, what do you do? The pressure to cheat is exacerbated by the fact that many school district are laying off teachers and closing down schools (my own school has been given a one year stay of execution and will probably close a year from now).

    I don’t know about what others may think, but the desperate financial situation in Michigan, California, and other states would, I believe, increase the pressure to cheat and tempt AT LEAST five percent of principals to fudge on their high stakes testing results, especially when it is very easy to chat without getting caught. And let’s not forget that these tests have already driven many school to forget about teaching music, art, science, social studies, and more.

  2. Marc Aronson says:


    Now that is one terrifying post. It all makes sense — the pressures alligned in such a way that a little cheat seems so much more painless than big consequences. But of course that is the total subversion of education as adults imparting what they have learned to young people — unless what they have learned is, survive or die — however you survive. Could make a great YA novel — kid involved in some moral dilemma in his life — family, girlfiend, team, friend — but it comes out in some Cormier way that the school itself has been corrupted, even as the town, the state is gasping. So the question is where is the choice, where is the borderline of good and bd — in the person, the family,the school, the society? Title: The First Stone, who gets to judge whom?