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OPINION: Failing the Test

If educators object to standardized testing, the answer is not to cheat but to find ways to teach the next generation about honesty.

Carol A.O. Wolf Jul 10, 2018 1:00 AM

When the news of a possible cheating scandal on the Standards of Learning tests at Richmond's Carver Elementary first leaked, it was heartbreaker for anyone who cheered for the students of the scrappy school in one of the poorest parts of the city that managed to have high test scores. Here was evidence, we hoped, that poverty didn't define destiny.

Many Richmonders felt like the young fan back in 1919, who upon learning the World Series might have been fixed, famously implored his hero Shoeless Joe Jackson: "Say it ain't so, Joe, say it ain't so."  Still, I must confess that I had wondered about the soaring scores not just at Carver, but in many of our city's elementary schools, especially given the dismal academic performance of most of our city's middle schools.

According to multiple sources, it is now a safe bet that Carver's principal, Kiwana Yates, and as many as eight teachers implicated in the cheating investigation by the Virginia Department of Education, will soon need to seek employment elsewhere. Whether any will lose their teaching licenses remains up to the state. 

Under Virginia law, teachers and administrators who contribute to institutional cheating can lose their licenses or face civil penalties of only $1,000 per violation, but they cannot be sent to jail.  

While the final report has not yet been released, it is expected to detail how the school's teachers who served as test administrators circulated around the rooms making sure individual students had answered all questions on the Standards of Learning tests, known as SOLs.  As they looked at the answers, the teachers would either smile real big or frown real big. They never said a word.  Their facial cues told the students whether their answers were correct or incorrect.  

When asked later to distinguish the difference in the way the school's test administrators behaved compared to other administrators, the kids innocently noted the exaggerated smiling and frowning.  As one child told her grandmother, who in turn told me: "Those other people didn't smile near as much." 

Whether for greed or glory, or a lack of faith in their own abilities as teachers, the adults involved in this mess engaged in child abuse of the most cynical and corrupt kind.  Additionally, a close examination of the remarkable pass rates at Carver shows that both the abled and disabled groups outscored the state average for abled students — and in recent years the scores at Carver have been almost identical. 

It's bad enough that they chose to cheat and compromise their own integrity by lying about the test results to the world.  They lied to these kids. They lied to their families. 

Worse, their actions sent a message that they didn't think the kids could master the test without cheating. It is a message that undoubtedly hurt the kids' faith and trust in adults.  Just as surely as the results of physical abuse remain long after bruises fade and bones heal, the results of this kind of abuse will persist as well. 

What is particularly unforgivable here is that they pumped the students up to believe they had aced the tests and sent them from elementary school to middle school unprepared for the academic challenges ahead.  Far from helping kids succeed, they set them up for long-term failure.  

No one can convince me that the dismal academic conditions in our middle schools, schools in recent years that have posted single-digit pass rates in math and science and are among the worst reading and writing skills in the state, were not made worse by these actions.  

We know that the standardized testing created high hurdles, imposed draconian consequences for not clearing them and then offered no tools to school systems to succeed. It is, however, not acceptable that the response has been to make liars of schools administrators at all levels, to manipulate some children with exaggerated smiles and frowns, to give correct answers and to falsely brand children as disabled to improve a school and a school system's pass rate. Or to deprive school systems of the usefulness of true measures of performance and to skew the use of resources in public schools.

Regardless of the whole debate about high stakes testing, the correct answer is not for teachers and principals to devise ways to cheat.  If educators object to the testing, they need to spell it out for us all to understand why they see the tests as weapons of oppression rather than tools of opportunity for students and teachers.  Every profession has examinations and since time began students have taken tests in school to determine how well they are mastering the materials.  

One of the high stakes tests we face as a society in these fearful times, when our children confront trauma in their daily lives, is to find ways to teach the next generation what honesty is and why it is important. 

Let us hope Richmond's new school superintendent, Jason Kamras, has the will to deliver this lesson.  S

Carol A.O. Wolf is a former newspaper reporter who served on the Richmond School Board from 2002 to 2008. She writes regularly about the Richmond Public Schools at saveourschools-getrealrichmond.blogspot.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.