EDITORIAL: Standardized tests not complete answer for evaluating education

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When the NCAA started requiring 820 SAT or 68 ACT scores for freshmen to be eligible for college sports, longtime college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian predicted that there would be cheating on those standardized tests to make star athletes eligible.

He’s been proven correct in several cases. The most notable one involved current NBA star Derrick Rose, who led Memphis University to the NCAA men’s Division I championship game in his only season there.

The NCAA later ruled that another student took the SAT for him, declared Rose ineligible, and vacated Memphis’ NCAA runner-up finish.

Now many states, including Indiana, are pushing to tie teachers’ pay and school funding to standardized test scores, or have already done so.

With so much at stake, it shouldn’t be surprising that Tarkanian’s prediction about cheating on standardized tests has spread to elementary schools. Only now some teachers are doing the cheating.

A recent USA Today investigation found statistical indications of cheating in 1,610 cases in selected school districts in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Washington D.C. They included erasing incorrect answers and replacing them with correct ones, giving students copies of actual test questions and correct answers before the tests as a “study guide,” and even a teacher’s assistant looking over students’ shoulders while they were taking tests and snapping her fingers in a code the students understood to mean they should correct an answer.

Since that investigation concluded, two sixth-grade teachers in Pendleton have been charged with giving students ISTEP+ science test material before the scheduled exam date.

According to an Associated Press story in the Evansville Courier & Press March 11, that violation was reported March 3, a day before the Indiana Department of Education announced there had been another ISTEP+ security breach involving the essay portion of the test. It resulted in canceling the scores for the writing application portion for more than 83,000 eighth-graders across the state.

So without much tighter policing, standardized test scores don’t appear to be a viable method for determining funding to teachers and schools. And such policing would best be done by an independent source. As USA Today noted in an editorial March 11, “School administrators . . . in schools with high scores have little incentive to look for suspicious trends. By ignoring them, they look better.”

Independent policing, though, could prove so expensive as to be prohibitive.

So what is the answer?

In an ideal world, we would not have to rely on standardized tests to determine which schools and teachers are effective. All schools would be locally managed by able administrators who are dedicated to providing the best possible education for their students.

Those administrators would conduct random, unannounced visits to teachers’ classrooms to observe how well prepared their lesson plans are and how well they get through to their students.

Then teachers could concentrate on teaching every bit of their subjects instead of concentrating mainly on what they think – or know – will be on the standardized tests.

We don’t live in an ideal world, though, so maybe the best we can ask for is somewhere between the two extremes. That would mean still using standardized tests, with the companies that produce them taking greater care to make sure the questions and answers are not distributed ahead of time and with teachers from other classes supervising students’ testing.

It would also mean relying just as much, if not more, on other methods of determining teachers’ and schools’ effectiveness, such as the old-fashioned classroom evaluation by the principal.

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