This Is Jeopardy!

A veritable potpourri of answers to the assaults on America’s public schools by Audrey Amrein-Beardsley

Jeopardy,” the trivia game show first introduced in 1964 is approaching its 25th straight year on television. Next to “The Price is Right,” it is arguably one of the greatest game shows of all time.

With its amazingly bright contestants (remember Ken Jennings, who won 74 consecutive games?), daily doubles, potpourri categories, double jeopardy rounds, the tick-tock music played during final jeopardy (titled “Think!” for trivia buffs) and its tournament of champions, “Jeopardy” has become a media icon in American popular culture.

Every day host Alex Trebek walks on stage as the announcer broadcasts “This is Jeopardy!” The lights dim, the stagehands silence audience members, contestants introduce themselves, and Alex reads the first answer to which a contestant must provide the correct question.

Vicarious Emotions
Answer: The state of America’s public schools
Question: What is in jeopardy?

Unfortunately, “Jeopardy!” isn’t just a game show. It’s the game show gone reality show in America’s public schools. As host, President Bush has created a serious state of affairs with positive and serious negative consequences attached to correct and incorrect answers on trivial test items such as those presented in the Hollywood version of the game.

The reality show’s producers include federal and state education leaders who promote the use of high-stakes tests to hold states, districts, schools, teachers and students accountable for making educational progress. Gold-level sponsors include testing companies who profit from the billion dollar industry selling standardized tests and their accompanying test-preparation materials under No Child Left Behind.

Local educators are the audience members who cheer on contestants in genuine and good-hearted hopes that opponents will be able to answer facts quickly and correctly. Students in America’s public schools are the contestants, trapped in jeopardy as they try to answer questions properly to avoid even more jeopardy. And the viewers are, too often, naive members of the American public. They are not part of the live audience but get drawn into the game show as they, most often helplessly, watch nervous contestants thumb the reply button in attempts to ring in correct responses. They experience vicarious emotions of delight and peril as contestants reap the positive or evade the negative consequences attached to right or wrong answers to sets of questions much like those used in the construction of large-scaled, high-stakes, standardized tests used today.

Answer: Flawed and imperfect measures of school effectiveness
Question: What are standardized tests?

Since the passage of NCLB in 2002, educators have been playing beat the clock using standardized tests to ensure academic proficiency by the year 2014.

Points of contention abound. Can stand-ardized tests accurately measure whether students meet state standards? Can a multiple-choice test with 40 or 50 items capture the breadth and depth of information incorporated in the state standards? Can standardized tests assess students’ abilities to think critically or solve contextual problems? Should achievement tests measure student performance beyond math, reading and writing to include other subject areas?

Also, do students take tests seriously enough to make valid inferences about teacher, school or district quality? Should constructivist teachers who teach critical thinking and problem solving be penalized for not teaching the facts and knowledge valued on the multiple-choice tests? Do test scores embody much more than students’ demographic and environmental backgrounds?

Gaming Methods
By playing the game.
Question: How do educators boost test scores when focusing on student learning isn’t enough?

To meet the stronger accountability tenet written into NCLB, states, districts, schools and teachers are increasingly gaming the system of stronger accountability across the nation. School personnel are employing a multitude of questionable test-preparation practices to help students meet the higher standards set forth by federal law.

Methods of gaming tests, however, result in spurious test score gains unrelated to true gains in student learning. When investigating whether stronger accountability meas-ures help students meet higher standards, education leaders must consider the extent to which the following instances of gaming are artificially inflating gains in student learning and academic achievement over time. The degree to which these practices occur varies but seems to happen with greater frequency in urban, traditionally under-performing schools.

Answer: The most popular practice in which educators engage to unnaturally raise test scores.
Question: What is teaching to the test?

When teachers teach to the test students become experts at answering test questions without entirely understanding the concepts justifying their answers. As teachers become familiar with high-stakes testing programs, they analyze the intellectual activities required on tests and use what they learn to give their students an extra edge on upcoming iterations of high-stakes tests.

Students end up spending hours memorizing facts, learning test-taking strategies, discovering how to manipulate test items and response options, making educated guesses, rehearsing test protocols, being coached on test items using clone items similar to those that will likely reappear on future tests, taking teacher- and commercially made practice tests and being provided actual test items before official tests are administered. All of these practices are replacing critical modes of instruction and inquiry-based, higher-order, problem-solving activities and lessons we know increase genuine levels of learning.

Narrowing Effects
Answer: The desertion of subject areas and co-curricular activities that don’t count on tests.
Question: What is narrowing the curriculum?

Curricula are becoming increasingly substandard in the name of standards-based reform. School curricula and activities are being narrowed to ensure the core knowledge areas tested on these exams, also known as the subject areas that matter most, and the core components within these subject areas are being covered in earnest and excess. As such, science, social studies, physical education and the arts are increasingly pushed aside or eliminated from the tested curriculum. Even recess is becoming extinct under the challenge to meet higher standards.

Answer: A strategy of advancing students with the most potential to boost test scores.
Question: What is focusing on borderline students?

School personnel focus considerable energies on “borderline” students, also known as “bubble” students, who are on the edge of passing or failing high-stakes tests. Because these students are more likely than their lower-scoring peers to post passing scores, educators often focus inordinately and intensively on them to spoon-feed them knowledge to pass the tests. Each passing score posted by a borderline student translates into an increase in overall test averages and, more importantly, student proficiency percentages.

Students already above the passing mark guarantee good scores so they are left alone. Students far below the borderline, for whom school personnel have the least amount of hope, tend to be neglected because they are least likely to contribute to the passing rates.

Answer: Tactics by which personnel remove low test scorers to manipulate composite statistics.
Question: What are creative exclusion and exemption practices?

Low-scoring students are liabilities in high-stakes testing programs, and schools look better without these students in the testing pool. Too often, low-scoring students are not encouraged to attend school on testing days or might be dismissed from school, suspended, expelled or convinced to drop out to remove low scorers’ test results from composite statistics. And students are sometimes classified as exempt from participating in accountability tests under special education or English language learner provisions. Legislators have tightened up some of these loopholes, yet some of these practices continue to occur even with new guidelines in place.

False Failings
Answer: “Dumbing down” and manipulating cut scores.
Question: What are two ways state leaders cloud educational progress on accountability tests?

When state tests are first administered, the high rates of failure typically generate alarmist headlines in newspapers. The public is sent into a frenzy, and legislators may blame school personnel, low stand-ards, low expectations, student disinterest and the like for low achievement scores. In reality, the high failure rates can be better explained by the students’ difficulty with a new test or by arbitrary positioning of high passage scores.

Because it is not politically viable to fail too many students, stronger accountability tests are made easier, their cut scores are lowered and fewer students subsequently fail. This gives the public the false impression that because of the high failure rates the year before, the threat of high-stakes tests motivated students to learn more, teachers to teach better and schools to better serve their students.

In reality, the dumbing down of tests by removing difficult items, making complicated items easier, shortening the overall length of the tests and manipulating cut scores to allow more students to move into the passing zones are more likely responsible for test score gains than are true gains in student learning.

In the long run, these practices ultimately disparage and belittle the fundamental principles behind NCLB’s goal of increasing standards and holding educators and students accountable for higher levels of learning.

Final Jeopardy
President Bush, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and other political leaders believe setting high standards and holding students accountable for meeting them are the foundation of education reform. But the vast majority of the research studies to date have concluded these measures have not increased genuine levels of student learning.

Too often in the public eye, media reports celebrating phenomenal gains in student test scores are celebrated. Such score gains in Texas under former Gov. George Bush were termed “The Texas Miracle,” but those gains were ultimately determined to be more mythical than they were marvel, manufactured by educators who today can take credit for pioneering some of the system-gaming strategies we are now observing across the nation.

When rational people are faced with impossible demands, they will work every angle they can to adapt, survive and succeed. Extreme circumstances warrant extreme measures.

These practices ultimately distort everything productive that is happening in public schools by wiping out components of the curricula known to effectively promote student learning and ultimately warping perceptions of reality about progress in the American educational system. In some schools, teachers are leaving the grade levels in which these tests matter most to teach at other levels or in non-public schools that don’t feel the pressure to meet unreasonable demands. Others are abandoning teaching.

Education leaders must recognize and eliminate the unethical test preparation practices that accompany the reality show version of “Jeopardy!” in which America’s public schools have been forced to participate. And they must help the policymakers and the public understand that NCLB’s accountability system is hijacking students’ opportunities to learn.

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley is an assistant professor of teacher education and leadership at Arizona State University in Phoenix, Ariz. E-mail: audrey.beardsley@asu.edu