Our testing culture is out of control: No wonder so many schools are cheating
In the past 20 years, we've seen scores of "beating the odds" stories involving impoverished urban districts making unbelievable progress on state tests. There was the "Tacoma Miracle," engineered by former New YorkRudy Crew. Similar miracles took place in Massachusetts, Texas and, recently, PhiladelphiaAtlanta. schools chancellor and
Just about all of the miracles, in retrospect, were mirages - built on the flawed premise that standardized tests can be the backbone of better schools.
A different reality, uncomfortable though it may be to leading education reformers from federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan to New York Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, is now staring us in the face. When broadly applied, overreliance on standardized tests produces a cheap imitation of real learning. In the worst cases, the "educational" methods it encourages - to improve school performance or face the consequences - have led to blatant criminality.
The false promise of our reliance on high-stakes testing is perfectly illustrated by the recent Atlanta scandal. Suspicions of widespread cheating there led to an unprecedented investigation that included many dozens of investigators and legal experts, 2,100 interviews (under oath) with teachers and administrators and some 800,000 documents.
Rampant cheating occurred in 44 of 56 schools, with teachers and principals changing wrong answers to right ones.
Even more upsetting to true believers in high-stakes testing is the emerging evidence of a cheating scandal in Washington's schools. What makes that case so astonishing is that the alleged cheating would have occurred during the tenure of superstar school "reformer" Michelle Rhee, who resigned as superintendent last year.
It would be easy to dismiss these as the actions of a few unethical teachers and overly ambitious administrators losing their way. That's Walcott's line. He insists that the city's high-stakes accountability system isn't vulnerable to cheating because of the way tests are administered and scored.
I believe that's a misreading of the forces that power manipulation. This is not only about whether systems have safeguards in place; it's about the broader culture - and whether it rewards score inflation or not.
When we threaten teachers and principals with demotions and loss of jobs if their students do not perform up to mandated test-score targets - as was the case in Atlanta - then we discover that test-score targets are inevitably achieved. When the pressures to ensure rising student test scores become so great, when teachers and principals lose out on thousands of dollars in bonuses, when educators get backed into a wall of desperation, they will find a way to game the system.
Consider the most recent investigation of city schools by Richard Condon, the special commissioner of investigations probing testing improprieties in New York City schools. He says that since Mayor Bloomberg took control of the city's schools, allegations of test tampering and cheating by teachers and other school officials have more than tripled.
Though these allegations remain unproven, could such a sharp rise really be attributed merely to better reporting?
All across the country, the message couldn't be clearer: It's not a few bad-apple teachers or districts that are the problem, but the punitive culture of high-stakes testing. When will education leaders get the message?
Sacks is an economist and author, including "Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It."