Cheating on SchoolNet Formative Assessment

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Last month Huntsville City Schools administered, against the will and good reason of many parents in the district, a new formative assessment exam from Pearson called SchoolNet. This test is a part of the SchoolNet database that is giving Pearson access to your child’s school records including: name, address, attendance records, tardy records, test scores on Pearson tests, test scores on STAR Enterprise tests, test scores on every other standardized test that the district is administering to our children so that they can assess not our children but rather the teachers, and even discipline records.

SchoolNet Data

This test assesses a student’s performance on English language and literature and mathematics for kindergarteners through twelfth graders, and adds other subjects to those two for grades sixth through twelfth.

In other words, for the vast majority of students, it assesses the exact same thing as the beloved STAR test that Wardynski claimed last year would change the way we teach across the system.

He was right about that. By using inaccurate and ineffective standardized test scores to assess teacher performance (not once has my child’s curriculum been adjusted as a result of her scores on the STAR test), Wardynski has ensured that across the district teachers have focused nearly exclusively (especially in the elementary grades) on nothing but reading and mathematics.

In other words, yes, STAR has changed the way we teach because it has restricted what teachers focus on. Don’t believe me? Ask your child how often they study social studies or even science. I think you’ll be shocked by the answer. Teachers are now, across the district, teaching to the STAR test because their jobs depend on it.

SGP Scores

The stress of the importance of the test has also resulted in some other unwelcome changes. It seems that at least two teachers in the district have been accused of cheating on the SchoolNet test last month. (Please remember that an accusation is not a conviction. I know that two have been accused of cheating. I do not know if two actually cheated.)

Cheating on SchoolNet Formative Assessment

You read that correctly. At least two teachers in Huntsville City Schools have been accused of cheating by the district on the SchoolNet test last month. It seems that the district noticed an anomaly in these teachers’ students’ scores: they were simply too high.

Let that sink in for a moment.

The district knew that two teachers had cheated because their students’ scores were too high.

Now, I suspect that there are safeguards put in place to protect against cheating by Pearson. (I say, “I suspect” simply because it is “illegal” for me, as a parent, to actually review the question on the test. As such, I cannot know that these safeguards exist. But it is reasonable.)

But even assuming that as a given, this means that the district knew that students would not do well on this test before they took it. They knew that their pacing guides that let teachers know the material that would be assessed on this test were developed late. They knew that their teachers had not, despite working through the material at a breakneck speed, complete all of the material that would be assessed.

While I don’t believe that they expected nearly 60% of the district to test below benchmark level, I think it’s clear that they knew that the scores would be low.

And so, when two classes exceeded expectations, those two teachers were accused of cheating.

As I mentioned back in March, when a district stops using assessments to assess a student’s performance and begins to use them against their design to assess teachers, cheating should be the expected outcome.

Teacher Certification Potentially At Stake

There is no more potential damning action on a teachers’ career than cheating. It flies in the face of everything that a teacher should stand for: the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge. Cheating breaks all of that.

And, in accordance with the Alabama State Department of Education’s Administrative Code (290-040-020-.04) clearly states that the “failure to follow security procedures promulgated by the Alabama State Board of Education . . . may result in disciplinary action by the local school board and/or revocation of the teaching certificate by the Alabama State Department of Education. Some of the potential actions that may result in disciplinary actions include:

  1. To photocopy or in any way reproduce or disclose secure test items (including pilot materials) or student responses before, during, or after administering the assessment.
  2. To review, read, or look at test items or student responses before, during, or after administering the assessment, unless specifically permitted in the test administrator’s manuals.
  3. To give students answers to test questions using verbal or nonverbal cues before, during, or after administering the assessment.
  4. To alter student responses on answer documents.
  5. To alter the test procedures stated in the test administrator’s manuals.
  6. To allow students to use notes, references, or other aides unless the test administrator’s manual specifically allows.
  7. To have in one’s personal possession secure test materials except during specified testing dates.
  8. To allow students to view or practice secure test items before or after the scheduled testing times.
  9. To make or have in one’s possession answer keys for secure tests.
  10. To leave secure test materials in nonsecure locations and/or unattended by professional staff.
  11. To fail to report a test security violation.

In short, if a teacher actually did alter test scores or cheat in some other fashion, they are putting at risk their career not just in the district, but in the state of Alabama as a whole.

It would take a desperate situation to risk this, don’t you think?

And that’s exactly the type of situation Dr. Wardynski has created by first tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, and second, by constantly changing the metric by which teachers will be evaluated. This happened constantly last year.

Please do not misunderstand what I am saying here. Although I can understand why a teacher would be tempted to cheat in the face of the pressure that the district is placing on them, I cannot and do not condone such action. If it can be proven that a teacher, or anyone, has cheated, they should be fired and their certification should be revoked.

However, teachers aren’t the only ones with incentive to cheat.

Principals Receiving Bonuses Based on Test Scores

Yep, if a teacher busts her hind side to help her students improve on a test (notice, I did not say, “help her students learn”), the principal of the school will receive a bonus from the district at the end of the year because Wardynski believes in the top down approach to incentivizing employees. If a teacher works hard, it’s entirely because the principal somehow worked harder in Wardynski’s mind. So, not only is a teacher pushed for higher test scores by having their jobs threatened, but principals are also rewarded for better performance.

This is part of Wardynski’s love-affair with bring widely criticized, questionable business practices (like stack ranking) into the school system even though companies that began these practices, like Microsoft, have since abandoned them as ineffective and a detriment to company morale and productivity.

But there’s certainly no need for the superintendent to actually keep up with best practices. An educational system would never be interested in that.

And so the top-down approach to leadership stays in place in Huntsville City Schools.

Which makes the following set of emails all the more interesting.

Director of Assessment and Accountability Distributes Links to SchoolNet to District Principals Prior to Test

On Tuesday, October 8th, five days after Dr. Cathy McNeal joked to the board that she couldn’t share information about SchoolNet with the public during the board meeting because she didn’t want “to go to jail tonight,” Dr. McNeal sent the following email to every principal in the district and much of the district staff.

SchoolNetEmail2SchoolNetEmail3SchoolNetEmail4

Some principals, believing that these were sample questions and that teachers needed to see this information to help their students prepare for the test (that they knew their students weren’t prepared for) forwarded these links on to their teachers.

Unfortunately, this was not the case.

The links that Dr. McNeal sent out on October 8th were actually not sample questions. They were instead active “link[s] to the test,” and principals should not “distribute list of tests to TEACHERS.”

You may see this for yourself below:

SchoolNetEmail6

So it would seem that Dr. McNeal herself may have violated “Test Security Policy.”

Assuming that there are, therefore, two teachers who have been accused of cheating, it is entirely possible that this happened as a result of an email sent from the Director, Assessment and Accountability herself.

Unanswered Questions

Even if all of this were just a big mistake, it does leave the following questions unanswered:

Why is it okay to trust principals with links to the actual test a week before the test goes live, but it isn’t okay for teachers to have links to the actual test?

Why is it that we’re almost a full month past the closing of the testing window and yet the promised “Parent Portal” that Dr. Wardynski claimed would be opened once “the testing period’s over” still is not open so “mom and dad” can “pull up a window that looks just like this”?

Could it be that the district wishes to continue to try and hide just how badly everyone did on the test (you know, since they were being testing on things that teachers hadn’t begun to actually cover in class)?

Could it be that the database that has your child’s attendance records (and therefore health records) and disciple records is not operating as it should? (Imagine that, a Pearson product that isn’t working the way that Pearson said it would. Whodathunkit?)

Could it be that the district, and the superintendent in particular, simply likes to put forth the illusion of transparency during his presentations, but then prefers operating and making decisions behind closed doors?

Perhaps most importantly, why are we as parents still allowing our children to be used as guinea pigs for Pearson products?

Why are we still willing to allow our children to be used as a mere means to evaluate and run off teachers, rather than as an end in themselves in need of authentic educational experiences?

Why do we still believe anything that the leadership of this district says?

Where We Need to Go

I believe that assessment is a necessary part of education.

I, however, believe that the best assessment, similar to the one that was designed specifically to assess Dr. Wardynski’s performance, should be individualized rather than standardized.

I further believe that teachers should be evaluated individually, just as Dr. Wardynski is. I do not believe in evaluating people using means and methods over which they have no control or influence.

Dr. Wardynski objects to being evaluated by standards that are not under his control. He should, as a “strong leader,” extend that same professional courtesy to the professionals who report to him.

He refuses to do so.

How a child performs on a standardized test is not within the teacher’s control. If a child is sick, he won’t perform well. If a child is hungry, she won’t perform well. If a child is distracted by the sound of 25 clacking keyboards, he won’t perform well. If a child is frustrated by a WiFi connection that constantly crashes or a testing system that requires constant scrolling up and down to read the entire question, she won’t perform well.

And I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface . . .

Treating people the way that one wishes to be treated is really the central key to leadership. It seems that Dr. Wardynski and our board are sadly unaware of this as he insists on being evaluated by a standard that he basically writes himself, while refusing to allow teachers any voice in theirs.

Finally, I object to my children being used as tools of assessment. It is wrong for the focus of our educational system to be taken away from educating our kids in order to ineffectively evaluate their teachers.

This is, in Kant’s ideology, turning our children into a mere means to an end as opposed to recognizing them as ends in themselves.

It is wrong, and it is time for it to end.

 
Russell
"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.

12 Comments

  1. Great job on this post. I don’t know how the teachers can close their eyes to this any longer and think that the union will protect them. I don’t know how the parents can think “this won’t ever happen in MY school” any more. I honestly don’t know how administrators and superintendents can really believe this is done in the name of “education”.

    Permission to crosspost?

  2. I am a HCS teacher. I would very much like to know which schools received the e-mail with the benchmark test questions. I don’t know about any other school, but I personally asked every teacher in my school who gave the benchmark if they received the mentioned e-mail and they all said “no” and were rather surprised that it had gone out. I did not receive it.

    This sounds as if certain schools got help and certain schools didn’t. Most likely those that received the help are those “Blue Ribbon Schools” that HCS has to protect their reputation.

    Yes, scores were low across the district and teachers are being punished for it.

    1. There is a difference between how schools are treated; however, every school has teachers who feel that they are being abused. And they are. Even at the blue ribbon schools.

      I don’t know at how many of the schools this list was passed out to teachers, but I know that it happened at some of them. (McNeal’s email to not share it with TEACHERS, after all, went to all the principals district-wide.)

      I know that every school in the district had scores that were far below expectation, and every school is being abused as a result.

      Got your “I CAN” statements up? (UGH, only idiots believe that education is aided by a stupid catchphrase.)

  3. In all fairness, the overemphasis on math and reading started with No Child Left Behind, since those subjects are all that stupid law cares about. Maybe the situation has gotten even worse under Wardynski, but it’s hard to see how — I don’t think time can be measured in negative numbers.

    The teacher morale at Mountain Gap and Grissom these days is downright toxic. I have never seen anything like it. When respected teachers resort to sending mass e-mails to parents begging them to raise their voices for change, you know things are bad.

    1. Well, I’ve notice a decrease even from last year in visits to the library, guidance, social studies, science, art, and music. And last year during the testing months, they cancelled PE.

      Your point about negative numbers is well taken, but I think it is still getting worse.

    2. Its toxic at my school too. We sat at a very lengthy faculty meeting going over what we want our school to look like using data from school net. Data that no one could explain to us, not even Dr. Vaisle, during our professional development last Friday. We are doing so much stuff that has nothing to do with teaching.

      I don’t blame the teachers who cheated. The bar is raised continually. And now that we were reminded that we are an at-will state, who could blame them.

  4. Was speaking to one of my daughter’s teachers last week about the curriculum and the pace at which they are going. I was informed by this teacher that she is being mandated to “reach teaching milestones” and therefore must proceed at a very accelerated rate, even if it means that some or even many students do not grasp the material. Say what? I asked a simple question: Is it preferable for most of the class not to understand the present topic and then just move on to reach the teaching milestone, or is it more important to ensure that kids understand the material and lag on achieving the milestone? With a sheephish look, the teacher informed me that “unfortunately, the milestones must be met and somehow the students would have to find a way to learn the material!” This teacher hated to have to say this, but basically indicated that it’s the teachers who are being graded here by this administration, not the kids. And if they do not reach their milestones in covering the material, they are in trouble. Great system huh?

  5. I just read that the United States is ranked 36th in math out of 65 countries involved in a 2012 study. Yet we still have the prehistoric mentality to think that laptops are better at teaching our kids than an actual educator??!! Wardynski and his staff of bobbleheads are just one more resaon why this education system of ours is going down the tubes.

    1. International rankings are largely hooey. Unlike small, homogenous countries like Finland and Singapore, the U.S. is geographically vast and multicultural. The U.S., to my knowledge, has never done well on these international comparisons, yet we continue to have the world’s largest economy. That doesn’t stop the worrywarts from freaking out about it, though.

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