Op-Ed: Let’s Stop Cheating Our Kids With High-Stakes Testing

Lisa Guisbond of FairTest speaks out about the Atlanta cheating scandal and the misuse of standardized tests.

Are standardized tests partially to blame for cheating that has occurred at public schools across the country? (Photo: Thomas Barwick)

The institutionalized cheating and corruption that led to indictments last week of a former Atlanta superintendent and 34 others are stunning, but no aberration. It’s more like the tip of an iceberg, with chilling implications for our children, their teachers, and our public schools.

An analysis by FairTest, where I work, found confirmed cases of cheating in 37 states and Washington, D.C., in the past four years alone. Most of this cheating is by adults, and much of it appears to come from top school administrators.

In response to unrealistic demands by No Child Left Behind and similar policies, school leaders like Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall have made it clear they will accept “no excuses” for failure to improve student test scores. Investigators described a climate of fear and intimidation created by Hall, who was named 2009 superintendent of the year for leading her district to test score “success.”

According to the indictment handed down on Friday, “[P]rincipals and teachers were frequently told by Beverly Hall and her subordinates that excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated. When principals and teachers could not reach their targets, their performance was criticized, their jobs were threatened and some were terminated. Over time, the unreasonable pressure to meet annual APS targets led some employees to cheat on the CRCT. The refusal of Beverly Hall and her top administrators to accept anything other than satisfying targets created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education.”

In this environment, assessments meant to identify students who need extra help were made worse than meaningless. Some schools lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal aid because they no longer looked like they needed assistance.

Again, this brand of school leadership, cheating, and corruption is not isolated to Atlanta. FairTest’s report names cities such as Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, El Paso, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, New York City, Philadelphia and the District of Columbia. School personnel have employed a range of tactics to manipulate test results:

  • Encourage teachers to view upcoming test forms before they are administered.
  • Exclude likely low-scorers from enrolling in school.
  • Drill students on actual upcoming test items.
  • Use thumbs-up/thumbs-down signals to indicate right and wrong responses.
  • Erase erroneous responses and insert correct ones.
  • Report low-scorers as having been absent on testing day.

I’ve studied school testing policy for more than a decade, but I still react to such stories as a public school parent. I try to imagine the school climate created by threats and intimidation. I wonder what it is like to be a student in these classrooms, taught by adults under extreme stress. It’s all too common to hear stories of young students fearing their teachers will be fired if they do not do well on tests. Under the threats and intimidation described in Atlanta and other cities on our list, toxic levels of stress must have seeped into the classroom atmosphere.

The iceberg looming beneath the visible evidence of cheating is a testing mania that cheats children out of a good education.

Perhaps worst of all is that, to boost scores, schools at times become little more than test-prep programs. Important and interesting subjects are given short shrift as schools focus on tested subjects. The focus is on the test, not the range of knowledge and skills students need to succeed in later life. The iceberg looming beneath the visible evidence of cheating is a testing mania that cheats children out of a good education.

The good news is that long before these shocking indictments, people have been speaking out. More and more teachers, parents and students, superintendents and school boards, are saying “enough is enough” to the destructive influence of our national obsession with high-stakes testing. More than a year ago, former Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott said the idea that standardized testing is the “end-all, be-all” is a “perversion” of what a quality education should be. His words helped launch a school board’s rebellion that has spread across the nation.

A National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing, in part inspired by a Texas resolution, has now topped 17,000 individual and 500 organizational endorsements. It’s time to learn the lessons of Atlanta and other perversions of what education should be and move beyond our national testing mania.

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