By now, most of you have probably heard something about the Atlanta teachers who changed students' standardized test scores. Just this morning I heard the story on the news comparing the implicated teachers to mobsters. And I can't begin to tell you how wrong I think that comparison is.
Before everyone starts freaking out, I believe that their actions were wrong. However, I believe in the era of high-stakes testing, these teachers weren't necessarily the villains, but desperate people trying to keep their jobs. They will be made examples of, to keep the rest of us in line, to stop other cheaters in their tracks. Because if you think Atlanta was the only place this kind of thing has happened or will happen, you are, unfortunately, wrong. When you connect students' score to teachers' employment, even the best teachers find themselves wondering if they have what it takes to keep this job, or even worse, if they even want to keep this job.
Most people who aren't in education, and many who are, don't get how unfair it is to judge a teacher by their students' test scores. In my state, all students are tested not at their determined academic level, but at their grade level. This means that a student with an identified learning disability who reads or completes math at a third or even fifth grade level is still tested with eighth grade materials, and expected to meet or exceed at that level. And their scores count in to the total scores for the grade level, even when we know they are unable to complete that level of work. The truth of the matter is not every student is college-bound. I know that's not a popular opinion, but I believe it's true and to pretend otherwise does a disservice to students. Not being college-bound isn't a put-down, either. I have several former students who did not attend college, or who went only to a community college to obtain a certificate, who now make almost twice as much money as I do. These students might not achieve on a standardized test, but score high when it really counts--in life.
Additionally, we only control the students habits from 8:00 to 3:00. To pretend that all students go home to loving families with a deep commitment to education is at best foolish. I can control what happens in my classroom (mostly). I can even send home food with the hungry ones, or give clothes to the ones who need them. I can love them and give them attention, but it may not fix everything for them. When you are wondering where you are going to sleep at night, achieving on a standardized test isn't really where your head is. Even in homes where everything is fine, education isn't always the biggest concern. But parents aren't the ones losing their jobs when the tests don't come in at the levels we expect. And that's not even addressing students who chose not to perform well because they are over-tested, bored, or unfortunately, even mean-spirited. If students know failure to achieve could cost a teacher their job, what's to stop them from throwing the test? I'm not saying that could or has happened, but I think we need to consider the possibilities here.
I can say that I wouldn't change a student's score, but I certainly get how it could happen. To be scared for your job is the absolute worst feeling in the world. And to know you could lose your job, even when you've tried your hardest and given your best is unthinkable. But, it happens. And unfortunately, until high-stakes testing stops, it will continue to happen. If I were 18 again, and knew what I now know about education, there's no way I would choose it as my major. That's not to say I don't love my job, because I do, but every day it gets harder and harder to deal with the part of teaching that has nothing to do with educating students. And I think if the rest of the world really understood that, they might have a little mercy on those teachers in Atlanta, and teachers everywhere else too.