- Measuring student achievement using standardized assessments is inequitable.
- The story of Parks Middle School exemplifies the inequities of standardized assessments. Cheating on standardized tests led to teachers and administration guilty in court for racketeering.
- There’s a great opportunity now to reconsider and determine the best method to assess student progress to unlock unlimited potential. Standardized assessments is a “one size fits all” method that does not accurately measure student achievement.
“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
– Albert Einstein
Unlocking unlimited potential is at the core of what every educator is trying to achieve with all those they serve. Unfortunately, “achievement” has been determined by standardized measures for far too long. Having a classroom, school, district, or governing organization that places the majority of their discussions around student achievement on standardized assessment measures is a practice of the past.
The story out of Parks Middle School is a perfect example. It exemplified the inequities of standardized assessments and their inability to determine student achievement in a consistent and innovative way. In order to understand how to unlock unlimited potential, we have to be aware of important issues like this one. It continues to hurt rather than help our schools.
Parks Middle School Story
It was the spring of 2006 and one of Parks Middle School’s most dedicated and passionate teachers, Damany Lewis, stood in a room full of the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests just completed by students. Parks School was an underperforming urban middle school that was part of the Atlanta (Georgia) Public Schools system which served about 55,000 students. At the time, three-fourths of the students at Parks lived in poverty. Furthermore, 90% of the students were either Black or Latino and less than 40% of the students graduated high school. Academic failure became a consistent reality at this school.
Since the No Child Left Behind Act came into fruition, these tests were going to determine whether or not Parks would be labeled a “School In Need of Improvement” for the 6th year in a row. The school was on the verge of closing down.
Cheating on Tests
Damany stood in that room staring at those tests requested by his principal, Christopher Waller. Damany cared deeply about his students, but they referred to themselves as failures because that is what their test scores determined year after year. Waller asked Damany to check the students’ answers. Damany reported that many students did not do well.
Then, Waller asked him to erase the incorrect answers and replace them with the correct ones. Damany, along with other teachers at Parks, did as requested. Waller said that he heard other schools in the district did the same thing, so he said, “If you can’t beat them, join them!”
Out of Control
Little did Damany know that he was starting something at Parks that eventually would spiral out of control and become a regular habit for the future. In 2006, Parks met its annual goals for the first time since the passing of NCLB. The scores at Parks increased considerably as this process continued each year.
By 2008, the 8th grade testing scores increased from 50-90% passing rates. Their scores were matching the achievement of affluent neighboring districts. The district received national recognition and over $40 million from the GE Foundation and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The football and the basketball teams were undefeated. As a result, Beverly Hall, who also knew of the cheating, was named Superintendent of the Year.
Cheating Scandal Exposed
In 2009, a newspaper in Atlanta printed an article stating that the testing gains at Parks were incomprehensible. This led to an investigation, and Damany Lewis confessed. Others followed. In July 2011, 178 educators either confessed or admitted to involvement in the cheating scandal.
After a 7 month trial, 12 teachers and administrators were found guilty for racketeering. Some faced up to 35 years in prison. Since Damany pleaded guilty, he was fired and lost his teaching credentials. Damany told the New Yorker, “I was fired for doing something I didn’t believe in.” Given a chance to defend himself in court, Damany said, “I think the evidence will prove that there is a systemic problem in the Atlanta Public schools.”
One Size Does NOT Fit All!
How can you expect educators to perform in an environment that is heavily based on standardized test scores? Perhaps, this illusion is the byproduct of this particular “celebration” held each fall by the Atlanta Public Schools at the Georgia Dome (where the Atlanta Falcons NFL team used to play). The students from the schools who reached their targets got to sit on the field while those who didn’t had to sit on the bleachers.
Something Needed to Change
After five years in a row, Parks School sat in the bleachers, humiliated. You can be darn well sure that they were not planning on letting this be a recurring reality for their students or school.
Can you really blame them for wanting to rid their students of that shaming?
Time and time again, the reason it all failed initially was because the scores delivered the message to students that they weren’t good enough. They were scarred from years of standardized measures. Inflating the test scores at Parks Middle School had students believing that they “could” achieve. The message at Parks shifted and students were actually believing they were capable of achieving more. Even though the hope was from a false source, they were unlocking unlimited potential simply by changing the story told in the hallways.
The Weight of Potential School Closure
I want to make it very clear, I do not condone these unethical decisions by educators. They made poor choices. The cheating was definitely a crime. Moreover, it was a crime that never should have happened. Having test scores related to a student’s sense of worth and the pressure of a school closure weighed heavily on this staff and students. The scores were not attainable for the school as a whole because they represented a “one size fits all” approach.[scroll down to keep reading]
What is the Value of Standardized Assessments?
As we continue to ponder the administration of standardized assessments, we must realize that student achievement cannot be determined solely from this one source. The COVID-19 pandemic offered us an opportunity to really consider the value that standardized assessments have in the future of our schools. Determining student achievement in an ever-changing instructional environment put standardized assessments in the back seat for now. Perhaps they should stay there!
Very little has changed in education over the past 20 years. Standardized assessments are a tool of the past and continue to be used to determine funding and effectiveness of teachers.
Therefore, we have a golden opportunity ahead of us. Perhaps this pandemic has provided us with a once in a lifetime opportunity to really consider what we believe to be most important in how we determine student progress. Student achievement should take into consideration so much more than just filling in the bubbles on a scantron.
The questions for educators as we navigate the future ahead are…What do you consider achievement? What creative ways will help you stay true to optimizing each student’s potential moving forward?
Aviv, Rachel. “Wrong Answer: In an Era of High-Stakes Testing, a Struggling School Made a Shocking Choice.” The New Yorker, 14 July 2014, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/07/21/wrong-answer.
About Brandon Beck
Dr. Brandon Beck is a speaker, consultant, and author of “Unlocking Unlimited Potential.” He is a National Board Certified teacher and Award Winning Professional Soccer Coach. He also holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership. His primary purpose as an educator and teacher leader is a simple one: “To inspire people (adults and kids) to have faith in themselves and believe in their inner genius.”
He has been an elementary teacher for 20 years, a monolingual, dual language teacher for the past 10, and holds a wide range of educational experience in versatile settings. He is also a Professor at Manhattanville College, NY, an editor and reviewer for AASA Journal of Scholarship & Practice, a regular presenter at state, regional, and national conferences, a motivational speaker, life coach, and an education consultant.
As a speaker, researcher, writer, educator, and consultant his areas of expertise include: Self-Efficacy, Teacher Effectiveness, English Language Learners, Culturally Responsive Teaching, Social Emotional Learning, Therapeutic Animals, Coaching, Professional Development, and Teacher Preparation.