Wrong Answer

In an era of high-stakes testing, a struggling school made a shocking choice.

The New Yorker, By Rachel Aviv, July 21, 2014

One afternoon in the spring of 2006, Damany Lewis, a math teacher at Parks Middle School, in Atlanta, unlocked the room where standardized tests were kept. It was the week before his students took the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, which determined whether schools in Georgia had met federal standards of achievement. The tests were wrapped in cellophane and stacked in cardboard boxes. Lewis, a slim twenty-nine-year-old with dreadlocks, contemplated opening the test with scissors, but he thought his cut marks would be too obvious. Instead, he left the school, walked to the corner store, and bought a razor blade. When he returned, he slit open the cellophane and gently pulled a test book from its wrapping. Then he used a lighter to warm the razor, which he wedged under the adhesive sealing the booklet, and peeled back the tab.

He photocopied the math, reading, and language-arts sections—the subjects that would determine, under the No Child Left Behind guidelines, whether Parks would be classified as a “school in need of improvement” for the sixth year in a row. Unless fifty-eight per cent of students passed the math portion of the test and sixty-seven per cent passed in language arts, the state could shut down the school. Lewis put on gloves, to prevent oil from his hands from leaving a residue on the plastic, and then used his lighter to melt the edges of the cellophane together, so that it appeared as if the package had never been opened. He gave the reading and language-arts sections to two teachers he trusted and took the math section home.

Flipping through its pages, he felt proud of how much material he had covered that year. “Without even reading the question, I could tell you just by the shape of the graph, ‘Oh, my kids know that,’ ” he told me. He put the test in his fireplace once he’d confirmed that he had taught the necessary concepts. But he worried that his students would struggle with questions that were delivered in paragraph form. Some of his seventh-grade students were still reading by sounding out the letters. It seemed unfair that the concepts were “buried in words.” Lewis felt that he had pushed them to work harder than they ever had in their lives. “I’m not going to let the state slap them in the face and say they’re failures,” he told me. “I’m going to do everything I can to prevent the why-try spirit.”

The principal of Parks, Christopher Waller, knew that he had seen the questions before the test. Waller told me that Lewis was a “star teacher,” a “very hard worker, who will go the extra mile.” When the math portion of the test had been completed, Lewis said that Waller asked him how his students had done. Since Lewis had looked at the questions, it no longer seemed like a big deal to review the answers. Lewis returned to the testing office and opened up the answer sheets of a few students in his class who got average grades. He looked for a hard question and, when he saw that they’d solved it, he moved on, assuming that they had done fine. Then he said that he “piddled” in the room, wasting time. When he felt that he had been in there long enough, he told Waller that it looked as if his students had done O.K. But Waller told him to check the answers of students who weren’t in his class. This time, when he looked, Lewis saw that some of the smartest students at Parks had the wrong answers.

At the end of the testing week, Lewis went back to the testing office with Crystal Draper, a language-arts teacher. For about an hour, they erased wrong answers and bubbled in the right ones. They exchanged no words. Lewis couldn’t even look at her. “I couldn’t believe what we’d been reduced to,” he said. He tried to stay focussed on the mechanics of the work: he took care to change, at most, one or two answers for every ten questions. “I had a minor in statistics, and it’s not that hard to figure out windows of probability,” he told me. Many students were on the cusp of passing, and he gave them a little nudge, so that they would pass by one or two points.

Via NPR: Educators Sentenced To Jail In Atlanta Cheating Scandal

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  • Schools seeing high opt-out rates

    The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News, By Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy, April 17

    Thousands of parents expressed disapproval of the state’s reliance on standardized tests by having their children refuse to sit for the first day of testing on Tuesday.

    Several districts in the Lower Hudson Valley reported that at least 25 percent of students had refused to take the tests. In at least two districts, that number rose to 50 percent. At least eight districts saw more than 30 percent of the student body refuse to take the tests. Another 14 districts reported a rate of refusal higher than 15 percent.

    Mahopac’s interim schools superintendent, Brian Monahan, said 55 percent of the district’s middle school students and 45 percent of its elementary school students had refused the tests. In North Rockland, 63 percent of the district’s middle school students refused the tests, with the overall district refusal rate coming in at 49 percent. Half of Ramapo Central’s middle school students skipped the tests.

    Cindy Rubino, a Lakeland parent whose children refused the tests, said she was “thrilled” parents across New York had pulled their children from testing rooms.

    “I do believe this is a historic day in New York state, as we try to regain local control over the education of our kids. These refusals are meant to protest a system that is currently failing our children and educators,” Rubino said. “To do nothing is to allow public education to be destroyed before our very eyes. In the process we are teaching our children a valuable lesson — to stand up for what they believe in.”

    Lohud: Middle-class families lead opt-out movement
    Lohud: Opt outs surge to 155,000, but tests will count

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