When teachers cheat

The American public school system is still reeling from the largest cheating scandal in its history. According to News24, the scandal saw 178 educators in Atlanta, Georgia facing allegations that they cheated to inflate their students' national standardised test results.

Why would educators, that include school principals, falsify their students' tests? What was their motivation to cheat on the tests that assess students' proficiency in language and mathematics? It appears to stem from the pressure to perform well resulting from a 2002 law nicknamed “No Child Left Behind”. Educators in public schools that do not perform well in these tests face penalties and may even lose their jobs.

Placing such an emphasis on the results of one test is problematic and forces teachers to 'teach to the test' rather than facilitating the holistic education of their students. Teaching to the test already ‘cheats’ children of an all-round education. Teachers should not be evaluated primarily on test results.

This does not mean that this kind of cheating (rubbing out students' wrong answers and putting in correct ones) should be condoned. Teachers should be role models for their learners. And cheating is no way for a role-model to behave.

Could it happen here?

What about South African public schools? Could we see a similar scenario in our government schools? This year saw the first wave of the Annual National Assessments – the so-called ANA. In February 2011 almost 6 million learners in Grades 2 to 7 were assessed on their language and mathematics skills. The ANA assessed what these learners should have learnt in the previous year in Grades 1 to 6. So we now have our own national standardised testing system in the same subject areas as the Americans.

Can educators cheat for their learners in South Africa? On the face of it South African teachers would have more opportunities to cheat because the teachers mark the ANA whereas in America the multiple-choice answer sheets are scanned externally. However, ‘cheating’ on the test does not necessarily help the learners to perform better. If things go wrong, it could mean more mistakes.

To quote from the Annual National Assessments Report for 2011 where the ANA results are analysed: ‘learners would tend to provide the same incorrect response to a greater degree than one would expect. This could point to two things. It is possible that in some schools learners were guided during the test administration process, but in such a way that this guidance was not always correct.’

At the moment one of the main uses of the results of the ANA is to identify under-performing schools and provide them with the assistance they require. This is laudable and seems to be a sincere attempt to provide resources where they are most needed. However, ANA is also intended to measure progress towards the targets set by President Zuma in his 2009 State of the Nation address. These targets state that by 2014, 60% of learners in Grades 3, 6 and 9 should perform at an acceptable level in languages and mathematics.

Three years is a short time to fix all the problems and inequities of the past - especially when at the moment only 47% of Grade 3 learners achieved more than 35% in literacy on the ANA and only 34% achieved more that 35% in numeracy.

The Minister of Basic Education Mrs Angie Motshega said on the release of the ANA results for 2011 at the end of June: ‘All principals and deputy principals will enter into performance contracts in the future with clear performance targets… performance will be measured in terms of the academic performance of the school... and directly linked to performance in the ANA and NSC Grade 12 examinations.’

It begs the question: What pressure are principals and deputy principals going to exert on their teachers to get good results in the 2012 ANA? I just hope that our educators, both teachers and principals, see this as a challenge to improve teaching and learning in our schools and do not follow the American example of resorting to cheating. We have to do everything we can to prevent our children from being cheated of the quality education they deserve.

Are you in favour of standardised testing? On what criteria should teachers be assessed?
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