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Test Score Manipulation Is Ethical Dilemma

When the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that the manipulation of test scores on New York State's high school exit exams had nothing to do with the fear of penalties, the finding called into question conventional wisdom about motives ("Test-score inflation can boost graduation rates but comes with consequences, Stanford study finds," Stanford Graduate School of Education, Apr. 13).  Until then, critics had charged that teachers would do just about anything to avoid accountability.

Instead, investigators said that the primary reason was "altruistic." By that they meant teachers acted to protect students they knew from the consequences of not graduating. The practice was more common in schools with largely black and Hispanic students.  If there had not been manipulation, the high school graduation gap would have been five percent wider.

What to make of this controversy ("Why Would a Teacher Cheat? The Atlantic, Apr. 27)?  I'm going to base my view strictly on what I've seen over the years with the students I've taught.  If the massaged scores involved one or two points, I defend the practice.  I say that because in New York State the tests contained several open-ended questions that by their very nature unavoidably involved subjectivity in scoring.  For example, using even the best rubric, scorers can - and do -disagree.  Is it defensible to deprive a student of a high school diploma on the basis of one or two points under such conditions?

Critics will be quick to respond that my position shortchanges students by giving them something they have not earned.  But I'm talking about a single test in which the difference between passing and failing comes down to an admittedly subjective decision.  I'm not talking about credit recovery, which allows students to get credit for an entire semester of work after attending a special class after school for a few weeks.  That is a travesty, and yet it continues.  Instead, I'm referring to students who have a solid attendance record, have turned in all their work, and have tried their best only to miss the cut score on an exit exam by a hair.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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