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Scrapping tests lets dishonesty cheat schools of a valuable tool

MY FIRST-GRADE math class often had a 60-second timer clicking at the front of the classroom. I was typically bent over my desk, quickly filling out a sheet of addition problems. I always set my pencil down promptly at the sound of the buzzer. Timed tests were a staple of elementary school math -- and for good reason. Students should have the ability to add, subtract, multiply, and divide easily and quickly, and timed tests measure such skills. Standardized tests are valuable as a measure of knowledge in many subjects. The recent revelations of cheating shouldn't be used as a reason to eliminate testing. Individual immoral acts should be dealt with individually -- not by scrapping the entire system.

On June 1, Maryland's Potomac Elementary School Principal Karen Karch resigned amidst parents' complaints that their children had been coached on a statewide test. Zorina Mohammed, a fifth-grade teacher at that school, was placed on administrative leave for allegedly encouraging students to change answers on the test. Results of that test -- which the state of Maryland has administered for seven years, since the creation of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program -- ranked Potomac first in Montgomery County and third in the state. This prompted the school to hand out stickers to students that said, "We're Number 1." But thanks to the principal, students will never know what that ranking really means. Because of the cheating, students will have to wonder what they could have achieved on their own.

Many television reports about Karch's resignation have tagged on statements that sound something like this: " ... sparking concern about whether tests have become too important," and featuring interviews with parents criticizing high-stakes testing. But blaming the scandal on the test -- or the politicians who approved it -- ignores the real culprit in this case: the principal.

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  • Link to Washington Post, "Students Get Lesson in Cheating"

    Mandating standardized testing cannot make school administrators and teachers immoral. If these adults are moral people, they will administer the test without cheating. If they are not, the use of a test may expose their immorality if test proctors choose to facilitate cheating. Maryland's standardized testing brought Karch's wrongdoing out into the open, but it cannot realistically be blamed for turning her into an immoral person. She had to decide to cheat -- the test was an example of her immorality, not the cause of it.

    It's true that the more important the test results are, the greater the possible gain from cheating. In itself, this speaks for stricter surveillance during more important tests. Schools should require proctors from outside the schools who have nothing at stake in the tests and prevent teachers from ever seeing the tests so they can't prepare their students using the test as a guide.

    Additionally, it's important to acknowledge that tests can't show it all. Just as students shouldn't be admitted to college based on SAT scores alone, test scores shouldn't be the only indicator of the quality of education a school is providing. Portfolios of students' work, such as writing samples, and hands-on classroom observation should weigh in when evaluating schools. Pretending that standardized tests can measure all aspects of education belittles the importance of music, gym, art and even recess in the whole of the educational experience our schools provide.

    But while tests certainly can't stand alone as measuring devices for schools, they shouldn't be abandoned either. Eliminating testing reduces schools' accountability for academic instruction.

    There are some things that every student should learn in school. For example, how to read, spell and write grammatically correct sentences, how to deal with fractions, how to tell time and how to perform long division. While the list is long and necessarily varies slightly from state to state, the basics are more or less uniformly covered nationwide.

    But, we must look further than each state's published curriculum to assess educational quality. Are these fundamentals being covered adequately at this particular school? This is an important question for parents, and it's one that standardized testing can help answer.

    Virginia's Standards of Learning tests -- standardized tests administered statewide to gauge the achievement of students, teachers and schools -- are still in the preliminary stages. Testing is underway, but the results don't count towards school accreditation yet. Holding schools across the state to the same standards of excellence shows both teachers and students what is expected of them. It should help prevent students lacking basic skills from slipping through the cracks of the educational system. It will ensure that students who are not truly ready for the next grade are held back until they are prepared. It should guide teachers and help identify teachers that are not doing their jobs well. And the results will provide a means of comparing schools and school districts with each other, and also of comparing the Commonwealth against other states.

    Of course, tests aren't perfect and probably never will be. But preliminary difficulties are no reason to give up on the process. Opponents of testing will use Potomac Elementary to argue their case -- but a few administrators who cheat shouldn't be an excuse to eliminate standards.

    (Jennifer Schaum is a Cavalier Daily columnist.)


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