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Preparing for the Test

When her second graders were given a standardized test, Janet, a new teacher at an inner-city elementary school finds her suspicions  confirmed. The words she had been told her students needed to know were the exact words on the test.


Finally, Janet Riley had captured her "dream" position! At 38, she was in the financial, emotional, and personal position to take a teaching job at Jefferson Elementary, a school in a low-income area. For the past 18 years, Janet's life had been filled with  responsibilities as mother of a son, now 15 years old, and wife of a business executive who had moved the family around the country as he advanced up the corporate ladder. Several years ago, the family settled in a large urban area with plans to remain no matter what. Janet Riley taught second grade in a suburban school for two years, but when an opening was announced at Jefferson, an urban school within a reasonable commute of her home, she applied. She wanted to teach in a school where the students were not so privileged. She felt she could make more of a difference in the lives of less privileged children.

Jefferson was an inner-city school of about 800 students 80% of whom were living below the poverty level. Janet was particularly excited about teaching at Jefferson because it enjoyed an outstanding reputation! When compared to students at other low-income schools, students at Jefferson had consistentlyearned the district’s highest scores on standardized achievement tests. For this accomplishment, the school had received state and national recognition for academic excellence. In addition to the recognition the principal was even been invited to attend a reception at the White House. The school had been impressively successful in obtaining grant funds and other resources to further enhance the learning environment. Janet looked forward to working in such a progressive school.

• • •

"We would like to welcome two new teachers, Janet Riley and Peg Williams, to our team." Brenda Jacobs, the second-grade team leader, said as she formally introduced the new teachers.

The team meeting continued with a review of school policies, announcements of upcoming events, and plans for the new year.

"The governor will be coming the beginning of next month, and Ms. Tate wants us to demonstrate how we are using our new computers," Brenda announced.

"The students must feel so proud when such important people recognize their accomplishments," Janet thought to herself.

Brenda went through several additional announcements about policy and procedures as well as an announcement about a workshop that would be held in the next month to review some writing strategies that were being developed at the school.

"I know you are anxious to begin your preparations for the new year, so we won’t prolong this meeting any longer. I’ll be visiting each of your classrooms with some additional materials and you can let me know at that time if you need anything," Brenda stated as the meeting ended. As Janet left Brenda’s classroom, she admired the abundance of teaching materials and supplies for the children, and a telephone for Brenda’s use.

Shortly after the team meeting, as Janet was working in her classroom, Brenda visited with an armload of materials, which the two women reviewed together. Among the materials were some word lists. Brenda explained, "These words are similar to the vocabulary on the achievement tests. Be certain that you drill your students on these words. They should know them well. It will help them do well on the achievement tests. You can see how we all benefit because our students do so well."

Janet questioned, "Those aren’t the actual words on the test, are they?’

Brenda assured her, "Certainly not! They are simply words similar to those that will be on the test."

In the flurry of activities associated with the beginning of school, Janet forgot about the list of words, concentrating instead on assessing where her students were functioning. Janet did not believe in teaching to the test. In her opinion, strategies to prepare for tests were unnecessary if teachers did a good job teaching their students the curriculum.

As Janet got to know her students, she was dismayed to discover that a number of them could not read and that their use of standard English was extremely limited. Janet sometimes worried how her students would perform on the standardized achievement tests, given their current level of skills.

Then, around February, Brenda asked her how her students were doing with the word lists that she had been given. Janet decided not to mention that she had ignored the list up until now. Hesitatingly, she responded, "They’re doing okay. We’ve been busy with other activities, but they will be ready.

That very afternoon Janet made up several different games. Some were games that students could play at their seats in pairs, and one was a computer game that students could use during free play.

Although Janet did not agree with the practice of teaching to the test, she tried to convince herself there was nothing wrong with teaching students how to take tests and enhancing their vocabularies. "These are words that second graders should know," she thought to herself. In the spirit of camaraderie, she also shared her games with her team. Her students enjoyed the games so much that she decided to share them with her friend, Lee, who taught second grade at a nearby school.

"We don’t do anything in our school to prepare the children for the test. Did you say you were given these lists of words by your team leader?" Lee asked. "It just doesn’t seem on the up-and-up to me. If you’re doing a good job of teaching this shouldn’t be necessary," she added.

"I felt the same way, but I have been repeatedly assured that they are just second grade word lists—nothing more," said Janet, hoping she sounded more convincing than she felt.

Janet once again put the issue aside, focusing instead on the job she was hired to do—teach her students. Before she knew it, spring was near and it was time for administration of the standardized achievement tests. Janet felt a bit apprehensive as she passed out the test booklets, hoping that her students were prepared. However her stomach turned as she realized that the reading vocabulary words on the test were the same as the words on the word lists—the same as on her games.

Janet thought back over her conversations with Brenda during the year. "Was she deliberately lying to me about the words on the test?" Janet asked herself as her thoughts began to race. She considered the consequences of a school being exposed for cheating on the achievement tests. Much of what Jefferson had to offer these children was the result of the rewards obtained through good test scores. "What will happen to the kids if the school is scandalized?" she wondered as her anxiety continued to rise.

"After all, what’s the big deal with the tests? The kids are getting good instruction," Janet tried to rationalize. "How should I deal with this? Should I go to the principal? I can’t believe she doesn’t already know."





After much deliberation, Janet decided that she should assume that Ms. Tate, the principal, knew nothing about the testing irregularities. Janet started her conversation with Ms. Tate, "I know this puts you in a difficult situation…," and she proceeded to tell Ms. Tate about the word list. Ms. Tate thanked Janet for coming forward with the information, and claimed to be surprised and dismayed, saying that she would take appropriate action. Janet was not convinced that Ms. Tate had known nothing of the practice, nor did she believe that Ms. Tate was glad that she had reported the irregularity: however, her feelings were only intuitions.

Nothing was said publicly at school and Ms. Tate took no public actions. As far as Janet could tell, nothing had changed for most people at school. Janet, however, felt repercussions. Brenda’s closest friend’s husband was the gym teacher at Jefferson. Suddenly, he started giving a variety of excuses for not being able to take Janet’s students for gym. As a consequence, Janet rarely had a planning time. Brenda never said a thing about the testing, word lists, or Janet’s conversation with Ms. Tate, but she did find fault with much that Janet did. By the end of the year, Janet requested a transfer from the school, feeling as though she was no longer welcome at Jefferson.  She feared that if she stayed, her competence as a teacher would be challenged. The school district’s Ethics Committee interviewed Janet, but Janet never knew if or what action they took.


Discussion/Study Questions

  1. List what you learned/know about each of the characters in the case.
  2. What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?
  3. What are the issues/problems in the case?

Additional Questions 

  1. Do you think it is ethical to teach to the test?
  2. What is the difference between preparing students for the test and teaching to the test?
  3. What benefits did the school gain as a result of their high test scores on the standardized tests?
  4. Do you think that the benefits gained from high test scores justified the school’s approach to preparing the students for the tests?
  5. Do you think it was Janet’s responsibility to report the use of the word list to the principal?
  6. If Janet had been more aggressive in her decision to expose the violations, what might have been the consequence? Would it have been justified?
  7. Did Janet make the right decision to transfer to another school the following year?
  8. What further action could Janet have taken to protect and retain her position at Jefferson?
  9. What legal regulations/guidelines (if any) do you think the school violated in this case?
  10. Do you think standardized tests are the best method of monitoring students’ progress?


CEC Competency/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case


Major Area:

Ethical concerns related to assessment

Minor Areas:

Legal provisions, regulations, and guidelines regarding student assessment.

Methods for monitoring student progress.


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