Late last month, 35 educators in Atlanta, including former superintendent Beverly L. Hall, were indicted for their alleged roles in a far-reaching scheme to alter students’ answers on standardized tests. In a post on SmartBlog on Education, teacher Bill Ferriter pins the blame squarely on draconian test-based school accountability and evaluation systems:
Long story short: Our under-informed attempts to reform education have resulted in a system where the consequences of "failure" are so severe that struggling teachers—or teachers working with struggling students living in struggling communities—can often feel backed into a corner and make the choice to cheat. ... Why is this so difficult to understand?
On the Huffington Post‘s College blog, Notre Dame anthropology professor Susan D. Blum makes a similar case:
When all that matters is test results, people will do everything they can to make them look good. High-stakes testing gives the message that the process doesn't matter—not even for the teachers. High-stakes testing puts the attention on the measurable: simple answers to simple questions. And cheating is always tempting when people are in competition with each other. Ask Lance Armstrong. Ask the overseers of the Chinese Civil Service Examination, who struggled in vain for more than a thousand years to prevent cheating.
In a just-posted Education Week Commentary piece, on the other hand, education-policy professor Michael J. Feuer says that attempts to impugn testing systems for cheating scandals are tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bath water:
First, shifting the blame for egregious mischief away from the perpetrators and onto the system strikes me as morally and politically bankrupt. Here's an analogy to consider: Do we react to the worst instances of tax evasion by condemning the concept of taxation rather than by prosecuting the evaders?
Roundly condemning testing systems for individual educators’ misdeeds, Feuer adds, also overlooks the potentially positive uses of test data:
Tests can help gauge individual learning, give teachers additional information about their students' progress, provide objective indicators of student achievement, and expose inequalities in the allocation of educational resources.
Meanwhile, on Bloomberg.com, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser argues that the lesson of the Atlanta cheating scandal is not to give up on standardized tests but to ensure that they are administered independently:
The best way forward is to move the evaluation of teachers outside the schools entirely, with standardized tests administered by an independent agency. This would be supplemented by classroom assessments based on unobtrusive videotaping, also judged by outsiders, including teachers' representatives. ... If the U.S. is going to use standardized tests to evaluate teachers or schools, it should pay the extra price of using an external agency, such as the College Board.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.