Opinion
Education Opinion

Campbell’s Law Strikes Again

By Walt Gardner — June 21, 2010 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Cheating by educators on high-stakes standardized tests is on the rise. A blatant reminder appeared on the front page of The New York Times on June 11 (“Under Pressure, Teachers Tamper With Test Scores”). As a result of an investigation prompted by suspicions that educators had erased incorrect responses and substituted correct ones in 191 schools in Georgia in February, 11 teachers and administrators were referred to a state agency with the power to revoke their licenses. The Times followed up this story with an editorial on June 18 that focused on cheating at an elementary school in Baltimore as further evidence of the contagion (“That Cheats the Kids”).

Indiana, Nevada, Virginia and Massachusetts also were involved this year, and South Carolina, Texas and California, among others, were named in previous years. Whatever the outcomes in these states, however, they won’t be the last to be tainted because of the existence of Campbell’s Law: The more any quantitative indicator is used for decision making, the more it will be subject to corruption, and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor.

More than three decades ago, Donald Campbell, an eminent social scientist, warned about the perils of relying on a single influential metric to measure effectiveness. The use of standardized tests that determine the future of teachers and administrators creates an ideal environment for cheating. When people are desperate, they often engage in unethical behavior.

This explanation by no means is meant to excuse the behavior of those who should know better. But like all laws, Campbell’s Law exerts its influence. The situation will only get worse in the wake of Colorado’s decision to count student progress on standardized test scores as as much as half of a teacher’s evaluation. According to Mother Jones, New York and New Jersey are on the threshold of establishing a similar version of teacher assessment (“Should Teachers’ Raises Depend on Kids’ Test Scores?”). A quick rewind through history reveals the reasons for this bleak prognosis.

In 1969, what was then called the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare wanted to increase reading and math scores for some 300 junior high and high school students in Texarkana, Ark. The district was under intense pressure to desegregate its schools and narrow the achievement gap between black and white students. (Does this goal sound familiar today?)

Under a program called performance contracting, federal funds would be returned for students who failed to pass the standardized tests at a stipulated level. The plan provided incentives for teachers, administrators and students. The initial evaluation seemed too good to be true. After only 48 hours of instruction, students averaged gains of more than two grade levels in reading and one in math. But the Texarkana miracle turned out to be a mirage when it was discovered that cheating was rampant. In the hope that what transpired in Texarkana was an aberration, performance contracting moved on to 18 other cities in the state. The lack of results there eventually put an end to the experiment.

There are other examples from other countries, but they all make a similar point: When too much is on the line, educators will engage in conduct that undermines taxpayer trust in public schools. Unless Campbell’s Law can be repealed, expect to see further evidence of cheating.

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP
Education FDA: ‘Very, Very Hopeful’ COVID Shots Will Be Ready for Younger Kids This Year
Dr. Peter Marks said he is hopeful that COVID-19 vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds will be underway by year’s end. Maybe sooner.
4 min read
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021. On Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, Marks urged parents to be patient, saying the agency will rapidly evaluate vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds as soon as it gets the needed data.
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021.
Jim Lo Scalzo/AP