The case against the CRCT

Pom-poms swish through the air as a mass of children, sitting cross-legged on the cafeteria floor at Smyrna’s Teasley Elementary School, join the chant from their teachers turned cheerleaders: Pump, pump, pump it up! Pump that testing spirit up!

Every April, cheers echo across the state on the eve of Georgia’s Super Bowl of testing. Pep rally DJs swagger and rap in crowded gyms: Imma be, imma be, imma imma imma be! Imma be doin’ my best! Imma be passin’ that test! Or to the tune of “Y-M-C-A”: It’s fun to take the C-R-C-T! It’s fun to take the C-R-C-T!

CRCT Jan 2011The next day, children walk into schools that are much more sober. Brown butcher paper covers the bright posters, the word wall, the daily calendar, and even the classroom clock. Desks have been turned around from their clusters to face the front of the room. With forced cheerfulness, teachers explain that this is the “testing classroom” and promise that things will soon return to normal after the children prove how smart they are.

Even six- and seven-year-olds get it. This is a time of winners and losers. The winning schools will be called “distinguished,” or maybe even “platinum” or “gold.” Teachers will be considered “effective”—or not—based on how their students perform. Some children who fail will not progress to the next grade. Some schools will be labeled “needs improvement”—the scarlet letter that leads to school transfers, angry parents, even declining property values. It’s all riding on one standardized test: the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, based on Georgia’s curriculum and given every year to grades one through eight.

Every teacher has stories of children who bit their fingernails to the nub, who threw up on a test booklet out of fear, who walked away feeling like a personal failure. A middle schooler spent the weekend crying after learning she had failed the math portion, then came back to tell her teacher, “I realized I’m really not a bad person. I’m really a good person.”

Given annually since 2000, the CRCT measures the “quality” of Georgia’s schools. It is a measure that has fundamentally altered what is taught in Georgia classrooms. To help their students pass the CRCT, teachers feel compelled to prep them with testing strategies and to focus—sometimes relentlessly—on the content most likely to be tested. That means an emphasis on concrete, multiple-choice tasks rather than creative teaching and critical thinking.

“Every day [teachers] face these decisions about whether they’re going to compromise their standards as a teacher for what they know works for kids to get a test score,” says Bill Wraga, an education professor at the University of Georgia.

Testing is a necessary part of education, and a test based on clear standards can be a guidepost for teachers. The CRCT sheds light on schools or subgroups of children who aren’t keeping up with their peers. If the goal is to help all children achieve at higher levels, “testing is the means we have available to measure whether or not we’re doing that,” says Kathleen Mathers, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. But has the means become the end?

Melissa Fincher, who oversees testing for the Georgia Department of Education, says good teaching should result in the knowledge needed to pass the test. But she sighs and acknowledges, “I’d love for curriculum to drive instruction as opposed to the test [driving it]. In the perfect world, that would be the case.” She pauses and adds, “There’s a fine balance there that can get off-kilter very easily.”

Perspective seems to have skewed at some Atlanta public schools, where concern about possible CRCT cheating in fifty-eight schools, including “serious” allegations against twelve, are still being investigated by state and federal officials. Yet allegations of cheating, first brought to light in 2009 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, are not the only scandal of the CRCT.

If the test scores go up, are our children smarter—or just better at taking the test? Are teachers doing a better job of teaching—or of test prep? “Let’s really think about the impact of these policies on teaching and on children,” says Janna Dresden, a former kindergarten and first-grade teacher who now heads the Office of School Engagement at the University of Georgia College of Education. “The morale of the teaching profession is just so low. It’s really sad. In the ten years I was in the classroom, there was a dramatic shift. Teachers and children are the victims in all this.”

Which subject BEST completes the sentence?
_____ love to read books.
A) It
B) He
C) They
D) Their
[Sample question from the third-grade CRCT study guide]

It was the week before the CRCT, a no-nonsense time when administrators and teachers begin to think about the calculus of testing: getting kids to come to school on time. Making sure they eat breakfast. Repeating test directions.

Jaye Thiel was in her Clarke County classroom, working on a project with her gifted first graders. They had collected litter from the playground and were writing about the objects—a discarded snack wrapper, a bubble wand, a forgotten Easter egg—as if the objects could talk about the need to “reuse, reduce, and recycle.” Her class was silent when the intercom crackled.

A number of students had recently been getting in trouble, the administrator said over the loudspeaker. She would not hesitate to suspend students, even if it meant they would miss the CRCT and fail the test. “If you are not about the business of the CRCT, you will not be here,” she said.

Thiel’s students looked at her, confused. The assistant principal wasn’t upset with you, she reassured them. But she had a harder time dismissing her own unease. In her eight years of teaching, Thiel had worked with children from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade, always focusing on their social and emotional growth as well as their academic progress. But over time, test scores became what mattered most. “I’m not about the business of the CRCT,” Thiel thought to herself. That sealed a decision she had been considering for some time. She resigned at the end of the school year, quitting the classroom to pursue a Ph.D. in education.

“What I think is a very qualitative process has shifted into a very quantitative process,” says Thiel. “It’s all about numbers.”

The movement for “accountability” has created an untenable formula. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 100 percent of children, including children with disabilities and foreign-born students still learning English, must pass a statewide achievement test—which in Georgia is the CRCT—by 2014. Even Georgia’s best-scoring elementary schools did not meet that bar last year. Meanwhile, schools that repeatedly fail to make “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP, are labeled as “needs improvement.” The consequences can include a state takeover or removal of the principal and teachers.

The premise—that every child can learn—certainly was admirable when the accountability movement gained momentum at the crest of the new millennium. The then Governor Roy Barnes launched the CRCT with his A+ Education Reform Act of 2000. Barnes was blunt about his goals. Georgia was at the bottom rung in scores on the SAT. “Some people say our schools are doing just fine,” he said before signing his sweeping reform bill. “Well, fiftieth in the nation isn’t fine, and we are going to do something about it, no matter who opposes it.’’

Today, Georgia’s SAT scores rank forty-eighth.

President George W. Bush made testing the centerpiece of his 2001 education reforms. “In return for a lot of money, the federal government, for the first time, is asking, ‘Are we getting the kind of return the American people want for every child?’” he said in a speech on the one-year anniversary of signing the No Child Left Behind Act. “The only way to be sure of whether or not every child is learning is to test regularly and to show everybody, especially the parents, the results of the tests.”

Melissa Weiss, an East Cobb mother of three, had a fourth grader when Bush signed the No Child Left Behind law. Eight years later, when she enrolled her five-year-old in the same school, public education had changed.

Anything that resembled playtime—the plastic kitchen, the rice table, the dress-up area—was gone. Within a week after the start of school, the teacher cautioned that Weiss’s son was already behind. He wasn’t holding the pencil correctly. He couldn’t count to 100. He couldn’t write many lowercase letters. He was easily distracted.

“He’s really absolutely age-appropriate,” says Weiss. “It’s the school that is no longer age-appropriate.” Weiss pulled him out and enrolled him in High Meadows School in Roswell (tuition $13,666), where he is progressing and loves school.

There is a price that is paid for the all-out emphasis on reading and math, on data-driven teaching that is guided by test scores. Many schools also have shifted away from things that are not tested. Less art, more math. Less music, more reading. Less time for field trips or projects, more time for test practice.

Around half of Georgia’s elementary math and science teachers reported that they rely more on test-taking strategies, and more than a third give more multiple-choice tests because of the CRCT, according to a 2007 study of achievement tests by the Rand Corp. Many teachers also reported that they focus more on students who are “close to proficient”—known as “bubble kids” because they’re just a few bubbled-in answers from passing. The children who will make the greatest difference in AYP are those closest to the cutoff for a passing score.

To pass the CRCT, students need only answer about half the questions correctly. So narrow drilling on commonly tested topics can help borderline students reach a “cut score.” “There are certain kinds of questions that might be more likely to show up on a test,” explains Jennifer Steele, associate policy researcher at Rand Corp. in Washington, D.C. “[But] if you just drill kids on those questions, you’re not teaching the broad array of things that test is trying to measure.”

Meanwhile, students who are high-achieving get relatively less attention from teachers. A national survey sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute asked teachers, “Who is a ‘top priority’ at your school?” Eighty-one percent said “struggling students.” Only 23 percent said “academically advanced students.”

The state’s education budget reflects the general shift in priorities under No Child Left Behind. In Fiscal Year 2002, when the CRCT was still being rolled out, the state spent $5.6 million on testing. By FY 2010, annual testing cost more than $35 million, including $22 million in state money and $13 million in federal dollars. (This year, the state cut CRCT testing for first and second graders due to a budget shortfall.)

Meanwhile, the state stopped funding foreign language instruction in elementary schools and revoked bonuses for teachers who gained national certification. Even before the recession that started in 2008, the Georgia PTA calculated that austerity cuts from 2002 to 2007 cost local schools about $1.25 billion in state funding. From fiscal year 2009 to the current year, further cuts totaled almost $3 billion more.

A cookie factory produces 325 cookies per hour. On average, 30 are broken. At this rate, if they produce 4,550 cookies, how many can they expect to be broken?
A) 214
B) 280
C) 420
D) 492
[Sample question from the sixth-grade CRCT study guide]

Paula Moore loves linear equations. She finds something soothing—even exciting—about solving math problems. As an eighth-grade math teacher at Henderson Middle School in DeKalb County, she does her best to share her enthusiasm with her students.

Before becoming a teacher, Moore worked in software support for a telecom company. She has a degree in industrial management. So she understands how the business world works. While she appreciates metrics and having specific Georgia Performance Standards, she’s puzzled by the system of accountability in schools.

Every year, she has foreign-born students who are still learning English. They struggle even on the math portion, because the questions still involve word problems and require English skills.

From the beginning of the year, she can identify a few kids who probably will not pass the CRCT regardless of how much enthusiasm or extra attention she provides. “I don’t understand the business model; I don’t understand what they were thinking,” says Moore. “What were they thinking we could do?”

The answer, unfortunately, lies in the realm of politics, not education. Educators are quick to point out that no teacher or student should be judged based on a single score. Politicians don’t necessarily have a problem with a high-stakes test.

In 2010, for example, state lawmakers wanted to require the state to give schools letter grades based on how their students performed on the CRCT. The plan used a “growth model” to compare students’ performance during a “year of learning.” For a school, it would be the equivalent of a year’s worth of work riding on a single final exam. By statute, only 20 percent of schools would be allowed to receive an A.

The bill was backed by some of the legislature’s most powerful members. In today’s tough economy, it was put aside due to budget concerns. But such letter grades are already used in Florida and New York City.

Even Susan Neuman, who was assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education under George Bush when the No Child Left Behind law was developed, now says the testing culture has created “a factory model of education” that is destroying public schools.

“Go to the schools; see if this is a place that you think is exciting to be in,” says Neuman, who is now a professor of education at the University of Michigan. “Put yourself in the place of a child and think like a child, and you’ll see too many schools are teaching too little and aren’t engaging children’s minds. So many of children’s days now are worksheets and boring test-taking skills. They’re not being taught rich content. Yet the world is demanding it and we’re ignoring it.”

What type of sentence is this?
Please keep off of the grass.
A) declarative
B) imperative
C) exclamatory
D) interrogative
[Sample question from the fifth-grade CRCT study guide]

On a Saturday morning a few weeks after the start of school, when the August swelter rises early and soaks into the urban asphalt, a hodgepodge of cars and trucks gathered near McDaniel Street in southwest Atlanta. There were little girls in tiaras sitting in the back of a convertible, little boys in oversized football jerseys in the bed of a pickup, drum lines and color guards and tot-sized cheerleaders, all waiting for the parade that would open the annual “reunion” celebration of the Pittsburgh community.

In the front, the honoree of this year’s parade rode in a black limo. It was an awkward moment for Armstead Salters, who had recently been removed as principal of Gideons Elementary School, a post he had held for nearly thirty years. In an investigation of cheating on the 2009 CRCT, Gideons had been labeled the school with the greatest number of suspicious erasures. Its passing rates on the 2010 CRCT had plummeted. While investigations continued, Atlanta schools Superintendent Beverly Hall reassigned principals from the twelve schools on the “most severe” list.

When Salters, a balding, fireplug-like man in a dark suit and tie, emerged from the limo, neighbors cheered and young children ran up to hug him. “We love you! We want you back!”

Parents described him as a stalwart in the community, someone who would escort kids through rough streets and act as a mentor to fatherless children. When Salters stepped onto the platform, looking a little shy, he thanked them and said simply, “You know that I’m still with you, and I shall never, never leave Pittsburgh.”

Perhaps authorities thought parents would be angry with teachers and administrators accused of whispering correct answers or erasing wrong ones. Yes, they were furious—but at the accusers themselves. Parents packed an Atlanta Board of Education meeting last August, some of them shouting into the microphone, voices shaking with emotion. A contingent from F.L. Stanton Elementary wore neon yellow shirts proclaiming, “We are not cheaters!”

Many of the accused schools were closely bonded to their communities. The principals knew families by name, went by students’ homes to check if they didn’t show up for school, made sure they got home safely. Some of the schools had won acclaim: National Blue Ribbon Schools, Georgia Schools of Excellence, No Excuses Schools.

“At every No Excuses school is a principal who is a dynamic leader. Critically important is the culture of high expectations these principals create,” said the Georgia Public Policy Foundation when it announced the 2010 No Excuses Schools, which included Gideons.

That may be so, but No Excuses awards are based solely on low socioeconomic demographics and the CRCT.

CRCT scores are also an important part of accountability targets in Atlanta; if a school meets at least 70 percent of the target goals, the entire staff (including bus drivers and cafeteria workers) receives a bonus.

When Hall paused to talk to reporters after her 2010 State of the Schools address, she questioned why teachers would feel compelled to cheat if the rewards were based on the performance of the entire school. What good would it do if their colleagues weren’t cheating also? “I don’t believe the incentives to get children to learn could motivate anybody to cheat. I just don’t fundamentally believe that,” she said.

Yet as tests carry higher stakes, the temptation to cheat grows, asserts Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest (the National Center for Fair & Open Testing). “The situation in Atlanta differs from other places in the nation only in size and scope of the documented problem,” he says. “We’ve seen confirmed reports of cheating in probably twenty other states this year.”

In fact, cheating scandals stretch back through the decades. In 1988, a West Virginia physician, John Cannell, found that elementary schools in all fifty states scored above average on nationally normed tests—a statistical impossibility, unless you live in Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon, where everyone is above average. In 1999, Texas investigated thirty-eight schools for wrong-to-right erasures and the Austin district for putting incorrect student codes on test booklets of low-performing children, eliminating them from reported data.

In Georgia, from 2000 to 2007, some 200 teachers were disciplined for testing infractions, including prompting students with answers.

Cheating, of course, completely undermines the accountability movement. If some schools cheat, they make the impossible look possible—and stoke doubts when an underperforming school raises achievement honestly.

Some educators see the accusations of cheating as an outgrowth of relentless pressure to improve. The Obama administration proposed changes in No Child Left Behind that would designate Reward and Challenge schools based on whether they met performance goals and encourage creation of new types of assessments. However, Congress must approve any changes to the No Child Left Behind law.

“That’s the monster that No Child Left Behind has created, that fear that our school [will be] in the paper because we didn’t make AYP,” says Lisa Whittington, an art teacher at Coan Middle School in Atlanta.

Governor Sonny Perdue, unimpressed with Atlanta’s investigation of cheating by a Blue Ribbon Commission, ordered an independent investigation. In October, dark-suited GBI agents spread out into the city’s schools. Criminal charges now appear likely.

One teacher remarked: “Another thing I would like to know? I would like to dig up a few of Sonny Perdue’s test scores and do a background [check] and see if the test determined his ability to become the governor of Georgia.”

Tyra’s family went on a trip to Canada. Tyra had $25 in United States currency to exchange for Canadian dollars. For every one U.S. dollar, Tyra received 1.17 Canadian dollars. How many Canadian dollars did Tyra receive for her 25 U.S. dollars?
A) $21.36
B) $23.83
C) $26.17
D) $29.25
[Sample question from the fifth-grade CRCT study guide]

Atop the twin towers, across from the state Capitol, Georgia’s testing paradigm is shifting. Erin Hames, a former middle school social studies teacher turned lawyer, is guiding the rollout of the Race to the Top program.

She talks fast, in a clipped way, as if there’s so much work to do and so much to say, she needs to get it all out quickly. As Governor Perdue’s policy director, she oversaw the application for RT3, as it is dubbed. [Nathan Deal originally said he would reject RT3 funds to avoid federal strings, but quickly reversed course. It is uncertain whether Hames will keep her post with the Department of Education.]

In about three years, teachers in the twenty-six districts that are part of the program—which, in the metro area, include Atlanta, Gwinnett, Cherokee, Clayton, and DeKalb—will begin seeing their pay based in part on their students’ progress. (The pay-for-performance plan may be taken statewide after the four-year pilot.) For teachers in core subjects, such as language arts and math, test scores could determine as much as half of their potential pay increases. Current teachers must “opt in,” which means they can stay in the current compensation system until they retire. “It puts the burden on us to make it something that people will want to opt in to,” says Hames.

The first phase begins next fall with the collection of a new kind of data. Teachers will be measured by how well their students do on the CRCT, but instead of comparing this year’s third graders with last year’s third graders—the current method of comparison—the state will track scores of individual students. Called the “growth model” or “value-added” approach, it seeks to measure how much learning a teacher provides in a year. The Georgia pay-for-performance plan would look at two years’ worth of data before judging teachers.

“While there are things to be worked out, I am very convinced that this is a better [method] not only for students, but for teachers,” says Hames.

However, as any parent knows, children don’t grow or change in a steady, gradual way. They may seem stuck in a moment of development—physical, emotional, intellectual—then suddenly surge ahead. Add to that the myriad influences that teachers have no control over, from health problems to violence in the home or neighborhood. Conversely, parents of more affluent students may hire private tutors, obscuring the shortcomings of their teachers.

Meanwhile, Princeton University economist Jesse Rothstein analyzed a “value-added” model in North Carolina and found serious flaws with the assumptions that are common to such plans. The scores may be influenced more by the mix of students in a teacher’s classroom than by the teacher’s effectiveness, he said. “My results indicate that policies based on these [value-added models] will reward or punish teachers who do not deserve it and fail to reward or punish teachers who do.”

Also troubling are the errors that have periodically occurred in the standardized testing industry, which is concentrated in several huge testing companies. Georgia has had its share of problems. In 2008, for example, social studies scores were disregarded because the test questions didn’t align with the state’s teaching standards.

There have been few independent reviews of the accuracy of test scoring. In 2009, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Education audited the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, pulling fifty test booklets randomly from about 1.8 million. Nine of the math booklets, or 18 percent, had a gridded answer that had been improperly scored by the scanning machines. Florida’s testing contractor was CTB McGraw-Hill, the company that administers the CRCT.

Fincher, Georgia’s head of testing, says there are “quality control checks” and the Department of Education looks for “anomalies” in the data. But it seems there’s little independent accountability for the standardized testing industry, which processes millions of tests each May.

Asked about the new Race to the Top goals for teacher performance, Patrick Crabtree, president of the Atlanta Association of Educators and an Atlanta elementary school teacher, scoffs. “Again, here we go with the unreasonable demands. Unreasonable expectations and witch hunts. I really want to know what a good teacher is. How do you define good? How do you define effective?”

That is a complex question, and not one that’s likely to be answered by the CRCT.

Answers: C; C; B; D

Illustration by Gracia Lam