Education Opinion

Campbell’s Law Strikes Again

By Walt Gardner — June 21, 2010 2 min read
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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.