UPDATE: After 15 minutes of debate, the Huntsville City Schools Board of Education imposed a 15-day suspension on Ms. Burks. The application of that suspension will be decided at a later date.
There is a personnel hearing happening in the board room in Huntsville City Schools right now to determine the fate of Ms. Eleanor Burks a fourth grade teacher at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary school who is accused of helping a student cheat on the ACT Aspire state summative test administered on May 5, 2014.
The district, in the form of Dr. Cathy McNeal Director of Assessment and Accountability, is alleging that Ms. Burks sat beside a student watching the answers the student was providing. When the student entered an answer that Ms. Burks knew was incorrect, she prompted him to reconsider his answer and as a result he changed his answer.
One single answer on the test.
Ms. Burks attorney argued that the board had provided only witness testimony but had not provided any documentation supporting the claim.
The board is considering a 15 day suspension for Ms. Burks’ actions. The district further claims that this invalidates the other tests given to the other students in the classroom that day as well.
This is a developing story that you should follow on WAFF tonight and tomorrow.
This is what we know right now. What follows are my thoughts and opinions on this matter.
The Cheating Motivation
First, as I’ve written many times, a cheating scandal is the natural outcome from Dr. Wardynski’s board-supported policies of basing teacher evaluations on student test scores. In March of last year, I wrote how easy it is to cheat on the STAR Enterprise assessment. In November 2013, I wrote about two teachers who were brought up on cheating charges on the SchoolNet Benchmark assessment because, “their scores were too high.”
Finally in April of this year, I published an email sent out by Dr. McNeal, yes, the same Dr. McNeal leveling charges against Ms. Burks today, that showed principals a step-by-step procedure for:
- Printing the test ahead of time so that teachers may teach to the specific test that their students may receive;
- Printing out the answer sheet for the specific test the student will take;
- Monitoring any student’s progress on the test to potentially determine which students might be rushing through the test or struggling with specific questions on the test;
- Clearing specific responses that a student makes on the test, and
- Resetting the test so that the student may take the test multiple times.
You may view the actual email below.
While these instructions were for the SchoolNet Benchmark and not the ACT Aspire state test that Ms. Burks is alleged to have helped a student cheat on, I believe that this clearly demonstrates what is actually important to Dr. McNeal, Dr. Wardynski and this district’s leadership: they care about high test scores that can be paraded around by the superintendent not actual education.
District Tells Principals and Teachers How To Cheat
This district has given the principals of our schools specific instructions on altering student test answers and deleting entire tests, and now that a teacher has allegedly assisted one student with one question they are considering a 15 day suspension to make an example of how hard they will punish a teacher for the slightest infraction of the rules.
I am not defending cheating; however, a 15 day suspension for allegedly suggesting to a student that he/she might wish to reconsider an answer is a severe punishment for a minor mistake. This is particularly true when they send out specific instructions on how to erase a student’s test so that she/he may take it again, don’t you think?
I am convinced that the district is attempting to make an example out of Ms. Burks to hide the fact that they know that far worse cheating is happening across the district.
Action Plan: Contact WAFF
So what should we do?
Well, first, we need to recognize that anytime you create a system that bases teacher/principal evaluations, teacher/principal employment, and teacher/principal raises on student test performance that you are creating a system where student education is a minor concern and student test performance becomes everything. And once test performance takes a priority over education, teachers, principals and district administration will be tempted to cheat on the tests to boost their performance.
This is the logical outcome from the system that Dr. Wardynski with the board’s approval has put into place in Huntsville.
Second, regardless of the outcome of Ms. Burks hearing, we need to recognize that this, and frankly much worse, is happening across the district. Every single principal in the district received specific instructions on how to modify the SchoolNet Benchmark. At least some of those principals have forwarded this information on to their teachers. The potential for cheating is district wide. I am convinced that the actual incidence of cheating is also district wide.
Third, if you are a teacher or a principal in this district, I know that you have been pressured to help students out or suggest that they alter their answers. I know that many of you have been actually ordered to alter grades. I suspect that all of you have been tempted to cheat.
Instead, please consider coming forward with your story on this matter. WAFF is investigating this story, and they want to hear from any teacher who has been asked to alter answers, grades, or has been tempted to cheat.
They will provide you with complete anonymity if you wish. But they need to hear from you as soon as possible.
If you would like to tell your story, please contact Sarah Navoy, WAFF, at 256-303-7094 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It would be great if she could hear from you tonight or tomorrow.
The way to end the backwards approach to education that Dr. Wardynski has brought to our city isn’t to cheat. It’s to speak out clearly about what the system is doing to our classrooms, our teachers, and most importantly to our children.
Please contact Ms. Navoy today.