31 Mar

We Don't Need No Education. It's Testing Week in DC

Originally Uploaded to flickr by Madame Meow

So, as I’m walking my kid and her friends to school the other morning, the conversation turns, as it’s wont to do with today’s six year-old set, to the impending testing regime, or the DC Comprehensive Assessment System, known popularly to them as DC-CAS. As the thread had segued from a previous discussion of Super Mario Brothers, I continued my usual policy of allowing children the space to develop conversational skill on their own. In fact, an uncharitable outside observer might even say I was ignoring them.

But eventually, my ears perked up, and I began to hear the awe and reverence these kids placed in DC-CAS. The test, which will be given District-wide next week to 3rd-8th graders, has no bearing on individual students, but directly affects teachers’ performance evaluations, funding for schools, and apparently, the tides. The consequences of failure seemed dire, with, from what I could glean from the kids, the likelihood of their school being bulldozed a real possibility. While my daughter seemed to be disturbed at this outcome, her young gentleman friend’s eyes lit up when this was suggested, and the conversation drifted towards that glorious dream, with discussions of who would get to drive the bulldozer in question.

But as I reflected upon this whimsical conversation, it seemed sad that our veil of crazy has been so easily pierced by the children. It’s no wonder, really. After all, at my daughter’s school, Brent Elementary, during the DC-CAS testing period, all students in 2nd grade and below are, in effect, banished from the school with several days of field trips.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a good field trip. With all that Capitol Hill and Washington, DC has to offer, we’d be neglecting these children if we didn’t take advantage of our cultural resources. Hell, I’ve got nothing against just taking the kids for a walk on a beautiful spring day. By all means, get out and blow the stink off ‘em, as my grandfather used to put it.

But what message are we sending when we say, “Hey kids, education is important? It’s critical to your future. But not because it’s going to help you grow into a vibrant, intelligent, and independent member of society, but because we need you to do well on a test so the school can look good, the teachers won’t get fired, and the principal can get a bonus. That classroom time that was so important in October that you couldn’t take a family vacation? Forget about it, just don’t get in the way of the test.”

And really, mailing it in for a few days so the older kids can take the test is nothing, really. I consider myself lucky. After all, aside from this seasonal craziness, Brent is overall a great school, blessed with wonderful teachers and a strong parent community. At another Ward 6 school, which I’m going to keep anonymous to protect the teacher who related this to me, the teachers, “…were told, by the principal, to walk around the room looking for wrong test answers and then telling the kids something like, ‘You should look at that one again.’ Yeah, our test scores went up.” At least as a parent I don’t have to deal with teachers teaching cheating.

Can any of us really even feign surprise that with this single-minded focus on test scores cheating scandals are popping up around the city? What did we expect to happen? If you create a system where cheating is implicitly rewarded, you can’t really blame cheaters. When principals and teachers are given only one metric for success, obviously people are going to game the system, either relatively benignly like sending the non-test takers on repetitive field trips or by out and out cheating. It’s crap, I don’t condone it, and some of these people should be ashamed of themselves, but the real responsibility lies with us.  What are we doing as parents, as taxpayers, and as voters to demand better?

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  • goldfish

    “…were told, by the principal, to walk around the room looking for wrong test answers and then telling the kids something like, ‘You should look at that one again.’ ”

    This quote, if accurate, is very disturbing, and possibly even illegal. It probably should be reported to DCPS for investigation.

    What it shows is that DCCAS is not properly proctored. Obviously no teacher directly affected by the results should be in the room. Outside teachers should proctor the exam.

  • K

    Great article. I think these kind of allegations get looked at by OSSE. I hope you would consider naming the school to them. I’m really not a big fan of all these testings, but the kids aren’t dumb and teacher endorsed cheating is a horrible message.

  • I got one for you

    I remember one year our lone high-school took the test and guess what? The tests were collected , packed and ready to mail and they languished in a storeroom . Yet, no one realized the mistake until the test score data came back and there was none for this particular high-school. Therefore, for that entire year this high-school was marked with an asterisk stating that data was unavailable.

    Now, did heads roll for such a boo-boo? Absolutely not because at that time DCPS Central Office was overseeing daily operations of this high-school and it was during the era of firing themselves would have been highly unlikely.

    Shudder the thought to forget to mail a test is almost comical in comparison where cheating has become the norm. I for one can’t LOL.

  • anon

    My daughter’s teacher was fired last summer after OSSE found irregularities during last year’s testing. I believe she did in fact walk around and suggest that kids “try that one again.”

    For what it’s worth, the teacher was fired (as she should have been) but her classroom’s scores were not thrown out. And no one from DCPS ever circled back to address that my kid didn’t actually know how to answer some of those questions – likely because the teacher never taught those things to her.

    That teacher was an outlier – and her actions shouldn’t taint the hundreds of other very talent, very honest teachers in our system and at our neighborhood schools.

    But I don’t think any of those talented teachers should be put in a position where they watch their students fill in circles and pray that they are getting them right. Can you imagine going to work knowing your career would be judged based on the pencil marks of a 9 year old?

    There’s got to be a better way. My daughter asked me not long ago, “If they want to know if Ms. ____ is a good teacher, why don’t they just come watch her teach? Don’t they know that some kids just don’t listen or try hard on some days?” She’s right.

  • DC Teacher

    goldfish: I totally believe the quote about the teacher.

    I am a teacher in another ward and my principal said pretty much the same thing this year. I reported it, two months later they sent a person to talk to a few of the staff….. and nothing has happened So, as of now, with the tests coming up, we have been instructed to help the kids cheat…. It’s disgusting. Testing mania is out of control.

  • goldfish

    The reason the kids take DC-CAS is to evaluate the school and its teachers. Therefore that school and its teachers should NOT proctor it. It is not that we do not trust the teachers and the administration. But since so much is riding on this, it would be prudent to remove any temptation to doctor the results.

  • Amy

    My daughter once told me that her elementary school teacher had looked over her shoulder during a standardized test and told her that she knew better than to put that answer down. So my daughter changed the answer. That was probably 10 years ago. Until I read this particular story I guess I had assumed it was an anomaly on the part of a charming and zealous teacher (in a school west of the park) who had thought my kid really did know the right answer to the problem and was just zoning out. Now I see it in a whole new light.

  • K

    Oh, and as a parent, I’ll keep doing what I try to do when inane things present themselves to my son – tell him to ignore it. I really resent the way these stresses created by and for grownups are filtered down to children. At Tyler, under a previous principal, the school had a count down to CAS with a long poster “XX days to CAS” and the number changed every day. You’d see when you walked in the building so it was a count down for everyone. Then at community night we’d hear about how to reduce stress on kids for tests. Here’s an idea – these tests don’t matter for an individual child. They have no reason to be concerned about doing well or poorly. They shouldn’t feel stress about these tests any more then I remember not feeling particularly stressed about standardized tests when I was growing up. If the kids are feeling stress then the grownups are inflicting this upon the kids and they need to knock it off. Which is not, btw, the same to me as saying they shouldn’t test or evaluate at all.

  • K

    And.. I’ll add to throw another wrench into meaningless field trips. How about the – send all the kids home who aren’t taking the test, approach? That’s what a certain charter high school was doing a short number of years ago – according to the person I tutored who was a student there at the time.