High Stakes Corrupt

These two articles got me thinking about the relationship between grades and cheating:

“To Stop Cheating, Nuclear Officers Ditch The Grades” – http://www.npr.org/2014/07/28/334501037/to-stop-cheating-nuclear-officers-ditch-the-grades
– “Wrong Answer: In an era of high-stakes testing, a struggling school made a shocking choice.http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/07/21/wrong-answer
Both articles are dramatic, and about more important issues than “just” grades, but that’s the connection that got me thinking: in an essay about assessment and accountability, Lee Schulman (in one of my favorite articles – http://www.changemag.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/January-February%202007/full-counting-recounting.html) wrote that “High stakes corrupt.” The NPR article about nuclear missile training is an obvious example of this, and their “grading reform” – getting rid of letter grades and their connection to competition and damaging perfectionism in favor of cooperation and pass/fail marks – makes a lot of sense, and apparently works, which is a bonus in the context of folks who can fire a nuclear missile.
The New Yorker article is a heart-breaking, in-depth, moving story about one teacher’s encounter with a test that felt very high stakes to students and teachers in their school. I’m sure that administrators and others in that district (and their state department of education) wouldn’t call it a high stakes test: it’s a statewide achievement test without impact for individual students. But the article made it clear that the culture of the school, and possibly the district, created the context that this test was definitely high stakes for teachers and schools. I bet there’s a document floating around that district somewhere that says something like “this test is only one measure of achievement, and data from this test should be triangulated with other sources of achievement data before daring any conclusions…” blah blah blah. But what ends up happening is familiar to anyone teaching somewhere with a statewide test (which is, now, every public school, I suspect): the statewide test gradually dominates any conversation about student achievement, and doing “badly” on the statewide test feels like a big deal to everyone, even if official rhetoric claims otherwise.
The articles also differ in many ways, including one very important one: the conclusions. In the NPR story, someone decides to dramatically change their old perfection/competition/ego based A-F grading system in favor of an evaluation system that communicates proficiency and acknowledges that people should probably work, you know, together to prevent nuclear accidents from happening. In the New Yorker article, the passionate teacher gets prosecuted, not the overall system that promotes the test craziness, and that school/district/students lose the chance to work with someone who sounds like a fascinating, dedicated teacher.
As I think about this, I can feel myself shrinking away from the implications. Traditional A-F grading isn’t going away any time soon in middle and high schools, and many good folks (like O’Connor, Guskey, and many others) put a lot of effort into “fixing” grading practices. I like reading their thinking and they are definitely trying to help teachers and students. But the contrast between these articles makes me wonder if all the fixes are ultimately very temporary patches on a tire that isn’t getting anyone where they really want to go.

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