Friday, October 15, 2010

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden SIde of Everything

First of all, this book has no plot (or what we think of as a plot) and Levitt even says himself that it has no theme. Levitt says, “Most books put forth a single theme, crisply expressed in a sentence or two, and then tell the entire story of that theme: the history of salt; the fragility of democracy; the use and misuse of punctuation. This book boasts no such unifying theme” (14). The book instead revolves around a series of questions that Levitt asked himself and then proceeded to dig through mountains of hard data to come up with an answer for the question. The questions include things like; What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? or How much do parents really matter? For the purposes of this discussion I will focus on the what do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common question. If you want to know the answers to the other questions I suggest you read the book, don’t the the inclusion of -onomics in the title put you off, it is very entertaining and intriguing.

So what is the answer to that question? Well it turns out that the answer is that they both have strong incentives to cheat and many of them do. I am not going to focus on what Levitt says about sumo wrestlers cheating because frankly, I believe many of you couldn’t care less. So instead I will focus on what he says about teacher cheating, a topic I believe is much more relevant to us at this time. What is teacher cheating? Teacher cheating is when teachers do deliberate acts, such as writing answers on the board, changing answers after the test is over, giving students more than the alloted time, or giving out exam questions early, that cause students in their class to score higher on a test then they should have. This does not happen on just any old test, it happens on our favorite kind of test, the standardized test. Now these are not tests like the ACT, SAT, or AP tests, these are tests like the OGT. We all know that if you do not pass the OGT you cannot graduate high school in Ohio. We all also know that if the school as a whole doesn’t do well funding can be withheld. This type of testing where a lot rides on a passing score is called high stakes testing. Levitt says, “The stakes are considered high because instead of simply testing students to measure their progress, schools are increasingly held accountable for the results” (26). It only became widespread about ten to twenty years ago and was only mandated by the government starting in 2002 with the No Child Left Behind Law.

Levitt says, “High-stakes testing has so radically changed the incentives for teachers that they too now have added reason to cheat. With high-stakes testing, a teacher whose students test poorly can be censured or passed over for a raise or promotion. If the entire school does poorly, federal funding can be withheld; if the school is put on probation, the teacher stands to be fired” (27). At one time California offered teachers $25,000 bonuses if their students showed large test-score gains. These are both very strong incentives for teachers to cheat and their final incentive was that teacher cheating was hardly ever looked for or punished when high-stakes testing began.

The Chicago Public School system is a fairly progressive school system. They had implemented standardized testing as a requirement to pass certain grades long before 2002 (1993 in fact) and decided when they started to keep a data base of every answer to every question that every student who took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (we all had to take this test as well) provided. Over seven years they catalogued 100 million answers organized by the individual classroom and teacher each student had. Only recently did they decide to use this data to attempt to identify teacher cheating. They then built a computer algorithm that would look for suspicious patterns of repeating strings of answers. The results indicated that within the entire school system more than 200 teachers were cheating. Levitt then explains that this is a rough estimate, “The algorithm was able to identify only the most egregious form of cheating--in which teachers systematically changed students‘ answers--and not more subtler ways a teacher might cheat” (34). They also saw that they year they made their standardized tests high-stakes tests (1996) that teacher cheating went up dramatically and that it was in the classrooms with the lowest scoring students that teacher cheating was most likely to occur.

Now this data alone was not enough to fire the offending teachers so the CPS (Chicago Public School System) so they decided to retest some classrooms. They only had 120 retests available so they retested some classrooms that they knew to be good teachers from the answer data and some they suspected of being cheating teachers. If the students held their gains in scores no teacher cheating was occurring, if they didn’t teacher cheating was occurring (the teachers were never allowed to touch any part of the test). The expected happened, good teachers‘ students held their scores while cheating teachers students fell dramatically. The cheating teachers were subsequently fired and the next year teacher cheating went down thirty percent.

Discussion Questions

What do you guys think about high-stakes standardized tests? Do they give more incentive for students to study and generally raise the bar for learning resulting in more quality teaching? Or, do they unfairly penalize students who don’t test well, and they cause teachers to focus too heavily on test topics, leaving out more important lessons (for example how to manage your finances properly)?

How serious is the impact of teacher cheating on students? Is it basically harmless and doing a little better than they should doesn’t really hurt? Or, does it give the student a false sense of his own abilities causing shock and low grades in class when they discover in later grades of school that it is too difficult for them?

If you were a teacher who taught average level students and you were offered $10,000 if your students averaged a certain reachable but challenging score on a standardized test but you knew your students were not quite that good, would you cheat to get the $10,000 (a very large sum of money) or not and why.


Megan D. 11-12 said...

I personally have a problem with standardize testing in general. I feel that teachers can become more worried about teaching to pass the test rather than actually worrying about students success after the fact.

Especially in the case of teachers "cheating", the teachers are choosing the money to help the school over the individual students academic advancement. The students are not forced to think for themselves and are instead spoon-fed the answers,depriving them of the knowledge that they are suppose to be learning through other means. The students then pass the test without knowing the answers, thereby making the test a worthless means of evaluating that students intellectual abilities.

And about cheating to get the money, I would not do it. If I had gone to school to be a teacher, my sole goal would be to help my students as much as I could. I would never go into a career just for the money.

Matt P. 13-14 said...

I think that standardized testing has many aspects to it, some good and some bad. The good aspects of standardized testing go to students who are good in three to four academic categories, being math, reading, writing, and science. Also, if a student is generally a good test taker, he or she will most likely do better on these tests because they can get a higher score without knowing as much as others. However, the bad aspects of these tests go to students who are good in other categories, such as art or music. These students are intelligent, but their intelligence cannot be measured by these standardized tests. Students who are bad test takers but really do know the materials being covered also suffer on these tests because they just don’t do well on tests. I personally believe they do more good than bad because they do offer incentive for students to work hard and pay attention in school so that they can do well on these tests and go to better schools for a better education. Some lessons may not be covered by teachers because of this, but that’s what college is for. This does cause the problem of teacher cheating to arise, which I believe is a very serious matter because students think they are doing better than they really are. So, they may end up going to a place of higher education that is too difficult for them because they have false grades or test scores. But, in the end, standardized testing seems to me to be an appropriate measure of intelligence for those who are going to be working in the fields covered in the tests.

Kristen T. 11-12 said...

I feel that standardized testing is not truly a suitable way to test the intelligence of students. Some students simply do not test well. This does not mean, by any means, that this particular student is unintelligent. I feel that more should be taken in to account for graduation and college entrance rather than simply a standardized test.

I also feel that standardized test preparation does not reallly help the students at all. The teachers are so concerned with insuring that their students receive high scores on the tests that they simply only teach what they know will be on the test. In 10th grade it seemed that everytime we learned something new the teacher made a point of announcing that this would be on the OGT. We were drilled daily with practice question after practice question, however, after the OGT testing things seemed much more layed back. The different teaching styles before and after the OGT shows how much the teachers value the OGT test scores.

I would not cheat to get my students to do well on a test. I feel that this would be unfair to the students. I would want my students to truly learn the material, not just memorize answers to do well on a test.

Laura B. 13-14 said...

I believe that high-stakes standardized tests can be somewhat useful in enticing students to improve their knowledge or skill levels. However, I believe that at one point the tests overcome the purpose of schools. Teachers sometimes do become too focused on what a student may need to know for the test instead of actual life skills. When teachers go into this so called "overdrive" the sake of going to school just to learn things for life is overcome by students furiously cramming to memorize something they will not need to know later on in life.

Cieran B. 5-6 said...

I believe that the standardized tests encourage kids to improve their skills and study more however most kids end up nervous about the test ending badly. This makes the student feel he is unintelligent and will not suceed in life.
when teachers cheat it may help the student out at the time but they are not learning anything so it would result in a bad learning experience for them. It also is a form of the teacher bing lazy and is not doing the job he/she was hired to do.
No i would not cheat for it woud end up badly for me and the kids later on. There would be alot of guilt on my shoulders if i ever decide to take that offer.

SeanK56 said...

How serious is the impact of teacher cheating on students? Is it basically harmless and doing a little better than they should doesn’t really hurt? Or, does it give the student a false sense of his own abilities causing shock and low grades in class when they discover in later grades of school that it is too difficult for them?

- I think this is a very serious problem. When teachers try to have all their students get high graeds so they look better, it hurts the students in th long run. What if a student gets an A in that class, not realizing the teacher has just inflated their grade to make themselves look better? The student may think they are very good at the ssubject and plan on majoring on it in college. Then most likely, the student will not have enough knowledge and could possible fail out of the major or college, costing them thousands of dollars and important time they can not get back.

Jacob B 11-12 said...

I believe that these standardized tests are necessary for students do well in school. They help to keep everyone on the same page and make sure everyone is keeping up with the necessary cirriculum. If they were not used there would be many teachers who would not teach their students everything that needed to be taught. However, the stakes of these tests are way too high. There are many students who are very intelligent but are very bad test takers.

Greg P. 13-14 said...

There are both positives and negatives of these tests. They help show students where they strengths and weaknesses are in certain subject areas. It also helps schools estimate potential students capabilities. However over reliance on these tests can over look things like social skills and other abilities. A person who got a 36 on their act but is incapable of communicating well with teammates or others is a problem.

CorinneS5/6 said...

I think that standardize testing is not an efficient way to gauge students learning. I have noticed taht standardized testing forces teachers to focus on topics that are not always beneficial to the students. Quite often, they force teachers to rush through important lessons to move on to test prep. This does not prepare our students well for real life and college.

Teacher cheating does hurt students because it falsley prepares them for college. Students become to focused on testing and are not motivated to learn if their grades are being elevated.

And for the third question I would not elevate students scores, because that would undermine my entire job as a teacher. If teachers can elevate grades then their jobs are useless, since their job is to teach, and testing is a way to guide their lessons and topics that need to be covered.

Justin B. 11-12 said...

Just trying to save you some points possibly here guys. Remember that there is a difference between standardized tests and high-stakes standardized tests and my question was regarding the high-stakes version

tyler k 13-14 said...

Coming from a kid that has no problem learning but totally drops the ball when it comes to testing, I don't agree with standardized testing. I feel everyone interprets what they learn differently so they apply it to real life senarios differently. Not everyone is going to recall or use info the same way so with that said, having everyone take a test that only some will comprehend the way it was written is unfair for those that have learned the same exact criteria but use it differently or think of the concept in an untestable way.

Justin B. 11-12 said...

Here's my two cents

There are good sides and bad sides to high-stakes testing (as with anything) however I think it is very easy for what I consider the bad sides (teachers may neglect important life skills mainly) to become dominant. I believe that a better version of an OGT like test would include everything it has now but also things like making smart financial decisions and judging the accuracy of information that you are given. Also, I think the test would be more useful if there were still incentives for the school to do well but not so harsh that achieving a passing score on the test becomes close to the largest goal of the curriculum.

How serious is teacher cheating? Well I believe that it depends on what the teacher does. Physically changing answers or giving out answers in any way = serious. Giving students a few more minutes is, in my view at least, not that big of a deal. I mean we have all been in the situation where you know the answer but don't have time to put it down right? And doesn't the saying go something like "If you don't know it before the test you won't know it during the test and you won't know it after the test." so by that logic a few more minutes would just give people a bit more time to fill in stuff they actually know.

And finally, the money. I am not going to go for the moral high ground in front of my peers as I suspect many of you are (nothing wrong with that of course), I am going to be honest about what I would do. First of all, none of us (or possibly most of us) can accurately say what we would do because we have never had to be self sufficient yet. Personally, I would have to do some serious thinking about the marginal benefit ($10k) vs. the marginal cost (possible loss of job, giving students a slightly false impression of themselves) factoring in the risk of being discovered.