In Atlanta cheating scandal, one culprit may be standardized testing
Some educators say the Atlanta cheating scandal is a warning sign of the dangers and perverse incentives that can result from a policy that stakes so much on standardized testing results.
(Page 2 of 2)
At Parks Middle School, where investigators said some of the worst cheating took place, Principal Christopher Waller – one of the 35 people indicted, and formerly a principal lauded by Hall – allegedly organized “cheating parties” with teachers. Other defendants, say prosecutors, are guilty of lying to investigators, covering up wrongdoing, and retaliating against those who didn’t comply with their wishes.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
“Atlanta was shocking because of the scale of it and the tragedy of it,” says Gregory Cizek, an education professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who studies cheating. “Some of the least able students were being told, ‘you’re doing just fine.’ That was a horrible tragedy in terms of the scale and the harm it did to kids’ education.”
Still, Atlanta was certainly not alone. The former El Paso superintendent was recently sent to prison for encouraging low-performing students to drop out. Ohio is currently investigating whether some schools intentionally “scrubbed” low-performing students from their rolls so their test scores didn’t count. And cheating was discovered in Washington, D.C., schools – also cited as models of turnaround. In an extensive 2011 USA Today investigation, reporters turned up multiple instances of extreme statistical anomalies and suspected cheating.
That such cheating exists, given the incentives in the system, is not particularly surprising, says Professor Cizek. “Every walk of life has incentives in place that corrupt behavior, and it would be shocking if they didn’t apply to the context of education,” he says. “It’s remarkable in education that so many people do play by the rules.”
That said, Cizek and others say it would be a shame if the lesson out of Atlanta is to discount standardized tests and accountability, given the valuable information that educators, parents, and students can get from them.
“It would be analogous to saying, we’ve discovered there’s voter fraud, so let’s get rid of elections,” Cizek says. “There’s always going to be a backlash, but by and large, [testing data] is high-quality information we can stand behind.”
Instead, he’d like to see a culture – starting with top leadership – that emphasizes professional integrity; a more varied system of accountability that uses multiple measures to gauge teachers’ progress, without focusing so narrowly on test scores; and more serious scrutiny on how tests are administered, to make cheating much tougher to do.
Already, he says, the big cheating scandals have caused districts around the country to get serious about that last point.
“Atlanta has caused every state and large district around the country to say we’re not doing enough to ensure the accuracy of test data,” he says.
Ms. Weingarten, like Cizek, notes that the vast majority of teachers are honest, and haven’t succumbed to pressures to cheat. But she also says that she hopes Atlanta and other scandals are “a clarion call for a new accountability system.”
The issue, she says, isn’t with the idea of accountability or even standardized tests – though she’d love to see tests that she believes are more aligned with problem solving, critical thinking, and other 21st century higher-order thinking skills – but with the unique power those test scores now have in many districts.
“This push to make [standardized tests] predominant in everything that’s done has run its course,” Weingarten says. “Hopefully this is the tipping point that says to policymakers what teachers and parents have understood: Of course we need accountability, and multiple measures of student success. Of course we need data to inform instruction. But this fixation on standardized tests as the be all and end all and arbiter of whether a child does well, a teacher stays employed, and a school stays open is crazy.”
RECOMMENDED: Quiz: Education by the numbers