Tag Archives: testing

Fear, Intimidation and Retaliation: The Atlanta Cheating Scandal and You

23 Apr

I promised in my last entry that I would blog a bit about the Atlanta Teacher scandal.  How little did I know how closely this thing would hit home for me, personally.  But you’ll have to hang on for a minute.

As I wrote my last entry, I began looking deeper and deeper into that situation, watching and reading hours of testimony given by witnesses.  There were initially over 170 educators from 40 different schools named in the investigation.  As time went on, educators came forward, confessed and cooperated and in return they were given a sort of leniency.  But it was all predicated on an admission of guilt.  They had to confess that they had some role in falsifying or corrupting the testing process.   One by one they came forward and made deals.  Until there were only 12 defendants left who went the distance and went to trial and all the way to sentencing.

Actually, that isn’t quite true.  There was at least one who could not be prosecuted because she died before she could have her day in court.

As I poured over the history of this unfortunate incident my heart went out to each and every person involved.  Everyone.  Of course the children who were fooled into thinking they were somehow gifted or doing better than they really were and subsequently failed to receive earlier intervention that might have come if the tests were serving the purpose they are purported to serve.  But in truth, these tests have never served that purpose.  George W. Bush made No Child Left Behind the crown jewel of his legacy.   Barack Obama took NCLB and “improved” it by taking the most onerous parts of it and incentivized it during a recession that gripped the nation through “Race to the Top.”  Beverly Hall won her accolades as Superintendent of The Year in 2009– on his watch.

The teachers involved lived in a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation.  Their jobs were on the line.  They needed the benefits for taking care of their own children and to put food on their own tables.  Even if they didn’t cheat, they knew it was happening.  Erasing student scores was wrong.  We all know this.  But I often ask myself, “what would I have done?”  Then I ask myself “What am I going to do?”  Because you see, things have changed but maybe not that much.   Notice that these teachers were sentenced on April 1st– a mere 3 weeks before the state of Georgia goes into its testing season.  Fear, intimidation, retaliation.  Those sentences and this whole story casts a long, long shadow over every single teacher in this state and even across our entire nation.  NONE of us are immune from the fear, intimidation and the fear of retaliation caused by the spectre of the long arm of the law reaching and grasping us with its cold and loveless fingers.

I felt for the judge.  He really pleaded and did almost everything he could do to keep from having to hand down sentences to these educators.  He delayed his sentencing by a day, in order to give them all a chance to make a deal with the district attorney.  It reminded me of the story of Pontius Pilate who did not want to administer a certain other sentence, trying the flogging first and then appealing to the crowds.  I’m convinced he took no pleasure in this.  Everything about this trial was painful to watch.  I know the educators did wrong and deserved some form of punishment.  But are they that much of a threat to society that they need to be taken off the streets and incarcerated with rapists and murderers?  They’ve lost their credentials that they spent a good portion of their lives acquiring and will never be able to practice their profession again.  They are jobless and in some cases indigent, unable to afford to pay for their own appeals.  They are broke and broken.

As I watched the videos of the sentencing and the efforts of the attorneys to appeal for some mercy, I was genuinely moved by the entire thing.  I felt a sense of hopelessness for every single person in that courtroom.  I would have taken the deal.  Any deal.  Whatever it took to wash my hands of this dirty, filthy mess.

And that is what this entire testing culture is.  It’s not about the children.  It’s not even about accountability and it certainly is not about teaching and learning.  It’s pure filth.  And as educators, we all have to swim in this hot, steaming vat of it.  I’m beginning to wonder if there is any pension, insurance benefit or salary that can possibly wash the stink of it off of any of us.  We’re in it for the kids.  But it’s not about them anymore.  It’s all about the data.

In my last entry, I described our testing season.  We are now a mere 3 days into a 10 day ordeal.  I am working with a team of 6 other extremely dedicated educators who like our kids and enjoy teaching them.  And 3 days in, each and every single one of us have had to write at least one incident report, reporting some sort of “testing irregularity” that will put us on the radar of the Department Of Education and subsequent investigations that might just put an end to that.  Most of these things are out of our control.  The new computerized testing administration is full of glitches and problems which are still being hashed out and has caused most of these “irregularities.”  In some cases, entire tests will be invalidated because of these problems.  Some students didn’t get their accommodations and we scrambled to make the best of things.  Only time will tell if we did enough to satisfy all of the oversight.

Parents all around the state  and country are starting to push back for a variety of reasons.  But one thing they realize is that our education system is hopelessly broken and every effort by our government to “fix” it has made it even more broken.  One of the reasons schools push so hard for students to take these tests is because there is money tied not only to the pass rates, but simply for having at least 95% of the students take the test on test day.    Fear, intimidation and retaliation.  While those Atlanta teachers who cheated didn’t do the rest of the dedicated teachers in the country any favors, the system has not gotten any kinder.  It continues to cultivate the exact same culture that incubated the scandal in the first place.  And it has made teaching a much more difficult and less rewarding profession than at any other time in our history.  And its starting to show.  I would have a really hard time recommending this profession to any student given the present climate.  Back when I got my undergrad degree in agriculture education, only about 2 of us out of 10 who graduated the program that December had any intention of returning to the classroom, with the rest opting to go into agribusiness.  I’ve always liked teaching, and still do.  But so much of the job involves so many other things besides teaching students, and almost all of it revolves around “accountability.”  Covering your bum.  It’s increasingly difficult to survive and thrive in that sort of climate for students and the teachers who teach them.   We’re sowing seeds that will reap a bitter harvest for this country unless we can regain some control over a testing culture that has gotten out of control.

Just remember that whenever you hear the word “Accountability” when applied to education, it is shorthand for fear, intimidation and retaliation.

5/4/2015 Edit: Thank you John Oliver!

Testing Season in Georgia’s Largest Charter School

12 Apr

I can see that this might be one of those multi-part posts where I talk about different aspects of one of my favorite topics: standardized testing.

I’ve been grinding against this sort of testing  for a very, very, very long time.  Granted, most of it was about the alternate assessment because that is where I was living at the time.  Now I live in a vastly different universe.  Still exceptional in a world of exceptionalities!

But I thought it might be informational and beneficial to talk a bit about the logistics involved with state testing for a virtual school that serves students in every single county in the state.  This is something that no other school (as far as I know) in the state could even attempt.  And yet we have been pulling this off for over 7 years.  Mostly without a hitch and certainly without scandal.  (Yeah, I know…I need to blog that)

In the special education department, we start planning for the spring testing before the first day of school.  In fact, we’re preparing for it the day after the last day of spring testing.  It starts with the IEP, and we run annual reviews and amendments to those reviews all year long.  We begin writing in the student’s accommodations, including which tests they will take and which accommodations they will be given.  And then there will be more meetings to amend and fix those as the year progresses, the tests change and the students schedules become altered.

Testing accommodations are among the most important service options that are presently offered on an IEP.  Especially since the academic goals have been rendered essentially meaningless, and the direct services are basically fairly standard and less individual than they ever have been.  Accommodations have a direct impact on what happens to a student on test day, and their subsequent grades, promotion and retention.

It’s obvious that my previous treatment of accommodations, as controversial as it was in those days, needs to be reviewed and updated.  It’s really fun to see the interaction I had in those days among different teachers!  gosh I miss that!

This year, we filled out a gigantic spreadsheet in December listing all of the students and their accommodations for testing.  This was the first of many, many spreadsheets and updates.  Every co-teacher in our department has a full caseload of 26, so this is not a small task.  Almost every task we have takes on gigantic proportions when working on this scale.

As we get closer to testing, one of the first things that comes out to teachers is where they are assigned to test.  Remember, we serve students in every county in the state, and each and every test is given in a face-to-face setting under standard conditions.  And we try to offer testing locations within 50 miles of each and every one of those students.  And every student that is given the End of Grade  (EOG) grades 3-8 test is going to be tested during the same 5 day window of time.  And every End of Course Test (EOCT) is given during the next 5 day period of time.  In total, we will test over 10,000 students across about 50 different locations in the state in a 2 week period.

That’s why this is such a big deal and is unique among all of Georgia’s public school systems.

My first year, I was assigned to a location about 15 miles from my house and it was one of the largest testing locations in the state.  That means that during the first week of testing we had about 300 students that we tested.  Grades 3-5 in the morning and grades 6-8 in the afternoon.  It was done in a community center that used to be a church, so it had a huge main room and then several smaller classroom areas that was perfect for a main administration and then several rooms for various accommodations.  However what was NOT perfect was that the parking lot was too small and had, at most, spaces for about 50 cars with 10-12 of those being taken up by us teachers who were administering the test.  This meant that traffic was lined up on the street during drop-off and parents getting angry before they even got to our door!  So they have since changed locations.  And so have I.

Many of the areas that we test are much smaller, but still have students that need to be tested where few if any teachers live.  That means that many of us will end up traveling and staying in some far-flung location in the middle of nowhere.  Georgia has lots of these areas.  Far flung ones.

For most of the year, students and teachers are in their homes in front of their computers, on the couch, in the bed and wearing pajamas but during testing time, it is “all hands on deck.”  It is a dramatic change for all of us, where we have to get up early, shower, get dressed and adhere to a very rigid and set schedule.  Basically pretty much what the rest of y’all do all year-long!  This radical departure from what happens from the rest of the year produces a lot anxiety and complications that most regular schools don’t have to deal with.  The testing environment is foreign to *everyone!*

Last year I was shipped off to one of the smaller far flung regions and I actually liked it so well, I asked to go back again this year.  It was just more relaxed because larger testing sites means more students and more difficulties that increase exponentially.  It’s just like teaching a larger sized class versus a smaller one.  It’s easier testing 35 students than it is 300, no matter how much help you ship in.  So for about 2 solid weeks, I’m going to be in Troup County Georgia living out of a hotel.  The school is paying for it plus mileage so while it means being away from home it will also sort of be a working vacation minus tourist attractions.  Yes, I’ll be working all day on my feet instead of sitting down, but at the end of the day there won’t be any last minute meetings or IEP meetings or the extra things I usually have.  Much closer to a regular working day.

After teachers get their assignments, then the administration goes about the task of assigning students to their sites.  It’s not an easy thing because students will often move and forget to tell the school where they moved to.  So we send surveys for students or parents to complete making sure the address we have on file is correct.   While this is being worked on, there are trainings, trainings and more trainings that us teachers attend regarding testing procedures.  We have testing security and integrity drummed into us, as if the news of the Atlanta teacher scandal didn’t make enough of a case.  I notice they always come out with news about this right before testing season, just to make sure the point is driven home: “Comply or ELSE!”

As special educators we go over our caseloads over and over again to make sure we have the correct accommodations for the correct test clearly spelled and marked on their IEP.  One mis-marked checkbox and we get a call to amend the IEP.  It is a stressful time for our department as we are also in the middle of doing annual reviews.  Actually, we are always in the middle of doing annual reviews!  We are also in the middle of registering for next year’s classes and getting ready to run through the Summary of Performance for each graduating senior.  Egad…what a painful thing to look forward to and I have at least 5 of them to do!

So the two weeks of testing is actually fairly relaxing compared to what’s coming afterwards.

So now we teachers are divided into site teams, with one person designated as a site coordinator for each week of testing.  Unlike other school systems where the elementary teachers give the elementary test and high school teachers doing their own, in my school system it is *everyone*– high school, middles school and elementary joining together to give ALL of the tests.  It’s a huge deal.   The person lucky enough to be selected as a site coordinator is the one who puts together the site plane, dividing up students and teachers and who and where within the site various testing accommodations will be administered.  This year, we have an added bonus of delivering the test online to certain students who have certain accommodations so there will be the typical test booklets and answer sheets but also some computers to manage.

This next week is the week before testing and it is when things really start to gear up.  Each site team has a day where we will go to a central metro Atlanta location for a half day of more training followed by an afternoon of assembling the materials that we will need for the first week of testing.  This is a pretty substantial undertaking as we have to make sure we get it as close to right as possible as many of these sites are hundreds of miles away and there is no “going to the office” on the spur of the moment to pick up something you might have forgotten, like a test booklet, a manual or answer sheet.  We put together our site kits that include all of the testing materials and labels, sticking the labels on the booklets and answer sheets, making sure that they match exactly.  And we count and count and count some more and write down how many of each thing we have for we have to make sure that we bring back exactly the same amount of stuff that we check out.  Once we are absolutely sure that we have everything we need and that everything matches exactly, we can seal our boxes up with the specially numbered seals.   Inside that box are also about 5 more seals as we will have to count and recount everything in that box each and every day and reseal the box each day of the test.  We also get spare pencils, scratch paper, calculators and this year, computers.

Once the box is sealed up, the testing coordinator takes it and locks it somewhere safe and then the next Monday morning we open the seals, recount and divide the stuff among the various test examiners.

Every parent of every child has been informed of where their site location is.  They have received a flyer with the time they have to report and they also have to fill out an emergency and release form.  They will also receive a call from one of the examiners from their testing site.  When they arrive to the test site they will show a photo ID and sign their student in.  This is quite a production since for many students they will be going to a new space where they have never been before, around students and teachers they have never seen before.  While some high school students might have seen my name or heard my voice or seen my picture, NONE of the elementary students will have the slightest idea of who I am!  So this can be a time of anxiety for a lot of these families.

But it can be a very rewarding experience as well, as teachers, students and parents can connect with each other face-to-face.  We do have events where we all can get together in our respective regions but this is the one time where students and families will actually be gathering up according to their neighborhoods.  This is one reason I richly prefer the smaller testing site as it’s more possible to establish a friendlier and more relaxed connection to a smaller group of families.  The larger sites are not nearly as personal and tend to be much more stressful for everyone, but there are still connections that will be made and often endure until that student graduates.

We’ll test one group in the morning and another group in the afternoon, each administration being about a 3 hour grind.  None of us are used to being on our feet all day, so us teachers are pretty footsore by the end of the first day as we work the room, actively monitoring the students as they take their tests.  Then we’ll count and recount all materials before resealing the boxes until the next test the next day.  Once that is done, we go home or to a hotel to collapse until the next day to do it all over again.  This will go on all week.  Generally Monday is the hardest as families arrive from all over and hopefully can find the site and arrive on time.

On either Friday evening or early Saturday morning, the site coordinators will converge at the main office to turn in their EOG tests and pick up their EOC tests which will hopefully be sealed and ready in their separate boxes, making the swap relatively painless.  “Relatively” is the operative term as the EOG materials will have to be checked in.  That means unsealing and more counting and then sorting and dividing the booklets, answer sheets and other materials.  At every single stage of this, there is careful attention paid to the accommodations to make sure that they have been given correctly for the correct tests.

And then the next week, we do it all over again for the high school tests.  This is generally easier because not every student has to take every test.  So the groups tend to be much smaller with proportionally fewer accommodations to administer.  So instead of the full 35 students, there might only be 20 for both of the ELA tests.  But there is probably more counting involved as the tests are arranged by subject and not by grade like the EOG.  And you can never count just one– you have to count ALL of them–every test whether you’ve given it that day or not to make sure they are all there.  Lots of counting and recounting.

Because we are dispersed all throughout the state, it would be impossible for a cheating scandal on such a large scale as happened in Atlanta to take place.  And even if it did happen, it would be too easy to track and narrow down exactly where it happened and who it happened with.  Eventually, all of the students will take it online and I suspect that will simplify this process greatly.  No bubbling of answer documents, no test booklets to count and really very little to turn in as it all gets turned in when the student hits the “submit” button.

Oddly enough, it’s because we are a virtual school that we have yet to fully adopt the online version.  since the students could not use their own computers and it has to be in a controlled and supervised environment we haven’t quite yet gotten the logistics of pulling together and deploying enough computers for all of our 10,000 students on the same day at the same time.  But we will be working toward that.  This year, it’s mostly students with specific accommodations that will have the machines as well as students in certain sites that will be designated online sites.  The online administration will open up some new assessment methods and opportunities as well as make testing itself more secure and less prone to the sort of human errors and interventions that have cropped up in previous years.  And if we can get the deployment of thousands of machines down across the state, it might make our testing lives a lot easier.

EOCT Fever

25 May

End Of Course Tests were at our school a couple weeks ago at our school and spilled out over a couple of weeks. While these are not quite as high stakes as the CRCT for middle and elementary students or the graduation test, they are still big. They are supposed to make up 15% of the students grade. They can, under some circumstances, be used to graduate a student even when a section of the graduation test is not passed.

Here are the courses with EOCTs:

  • U.S. History
  • Physical Science
  • American Literature
  • 9th grade literature
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Biology
  • Economics

It strikes me as a bit funny that there are so many courses with no EOCT. Plus, each of these courses will also have a final exam next week. So what is up with the EOCT? The EOCT is merely a practice for the graduation test. These are the courses covered by the GHSGT, and so students get a special practice test in order to assess their readiness for the graduation test — and the school’s readiness for making AYP.  Apparently, not much counts after you take the GHSGT.  Why not an EOCT in chemistry, World History or the foriegn languages?  If teaching and learning are the focus, why not teaching and learning in these other areas?  Especially since the Highly Qualified requirement still apllies to teachers teaching these other courses.

Apparently, we do have a national curriculum: Testing and Test Prep.

I’ve been doing some extra reading, and it is alarming and depressing where public education is going in the 21st century. The system that defeated the Communists and brought down the wall during the cold war is now being replaced by the system we worked so hard to defeat.

Of course, the testing schedule disrupts the schedule of everyone in the building. While I am self-contained, it still impacts me as there is no planning period, the lunch schedule is off and having to accommodate everyone else derails my kids. But no one thinks about my kids when designing the schedule.