by Robert Pondiscio
June 11th, 2010

“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered I’ve seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen” –Woody Guthrie.

In the least surprising education story of the year, the New York Times reports that cheating is increasing as the stakes grow higher on standardized tests.  Cue sounds of earnest clucking and charges of sloppy journalism.   There’s a bigger and better cheating story to be told and it goes far beyond tales of individual or even school-wide mendacity.  Lower cut scores, scoring rubrics that award generous and undeserved partial credit, and dumbed down tests are cheating too.  So is using these debased metrics to create an illusion of proficiency or progress where none exists.  One doesn’t need to be cyncial to wonder if the real story isn’t who is cheating, but rather who isn’t?

Every year — EVERY year — that I taught fifth grade, I had students in my classroom who had tested on grade level the previous year who added and subtracted on their fingers and struggled to retell details from even simple stories.  Was someone cheating?  Maybe.  Was someone cheated?  Definitely.


  1. I love it!

    Comment by Mark Vice — June 12, 2010 @ 9:56 am

  2. You said it. What has never been developed into the various accountability regimens is the arc into honest assessment that prepares kids appropriately for having their skills assessed while not decimating their sense of self-worth. Firm doesn’t have to equal Mean, especially if the pressure is gradually and consistently and equitably applied.

    I’m talking about the way both students and teachers are assessed, by the way. Trust but verify. Expect and support.

    We need to help our kids understand that they are not bad people if they fail (or, probably more important, good people if they pass). The various high stakes regimens — not to mention a national mythology, but that’s another story…maybe — go so whole-hog into the cheerleading that they set up success as the only option, and dissonance and despair for all other results. The best teachers I know are ones who are more interested to hear what they can do better than be apotheosized for what they do brilliantly. The same is true for students, even though we have to be much more careful there. I know many at CoreKnowledge share my belief that it’s as important to start telling us teachers the truth about how we do in class as it is to assess the students differently.

    In the current environment, it seems that the pressure for passing is so extreme that honesty is the first casualty. We are dishonest to kids about their skill levels, worst of all. Smiley faces and grade inflation proliferate…and then we cannot abide the cognitive dissonance that comes out at the other end of the year.

    I’m not suggesting it’s easy, and I’m CERTAINLY not suggesting that the solution is to stop encouraging kids or — god forbid — to start telling them they’re rotten. But it sure doesn’t have to be so dysfunctional that Robert’s sarcasm gets sharper every time an ed article is published in The New York Times! We can work on fixing high-stakes-ness, and we can raise standards in the classrooms without losing the human sensitivity to the child’s (and the teacher’s) development.

    It may seem paradoxical to policymakers that we teachers can — if properly attuned to the development of arcs of expectation through the year and across several years — RAISE outcomes while we LOWER the stakes (on assessments that are being used in ways they were not/should not have been designed to be used). The accountability system does have to pay closer, sustained attention to what we are doing, though. This can’t happen on bubble sheets, I’m afraid. Implementing higher standards, decreasing “one-size-fits-all”, developing structures like professional learning communities and mentoring and cross-disciplinary teams, improving the frequency and attentiveness of observations, and perhaps most of all providing time and expectation for teachers to reflect actively and communally on what they do in class and why: all these could increase transparency and push us in the right direction.

    Comment by Carl Rosin — June 12, 2010 @ 11:24 am

  3. Great minds think alike, evidently:

    Although my great mind is thinking more like Carl’s, whose comment is spot-on.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — June 12, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

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