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The Real Cheating Scandal of Standardized Tests

Opinion: The widening circle of cheating scandals on standardized tests should fuel the movement to reduce the stakes these exams have on public education in the U.S.

Last week, Montana became the leader of what is likely to be a number of states that will rebel against the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law by refusing to raise test score targets as required by the law. The list of states and cities plagued by allegations of cheating on standardized tests is likely to grow beyond Washington, Baltimore, Atlanta,Pennsylvania and New Jersey. What are we to make of the Obama administration’s willingness to waive some of the most extreme penalties under the No Child law but to only offer the rather hollow response of calling for enhanced “test security” to combat test cheating? Instead of a shocking anomaly, it seems that the egregious test cheating uncovered in Atlanta public schools last month may be more common than we as a nation want to believe.

The truth is that the greater the stakes imposed on standardized test scores, the greater the pressure on educators to do whatever it takes to juice up the scores even if it degrades educational quality. By expressing his dismay and urging schools to increase test scores, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is evading the very important elephant-in-the-room question: “Are American public schools moving in the wrong direction by increasing emphasis on standardized test scores?”

For my part, I am not surprised that modeling public schools after corporate America has resulted in the educational versions of the Enron scandal. Each year, more and more pressure has been heaped on schools and teachers to raise test scores without equally strong recognition of the myriad factors beyond teachers’ — and, in many instances, students’ — control that impact student scores. Instead of being stunned, Duncan should be concerned that federal education policies initiated under his watch, as well as the pre-existing No Child Left Behind Act requirements, will fuel more cheating and diminish the quality of students’ education.

Eventually, enhanced security measures will prevent unscrupulous teachers from correcting student answers. Yet, unless and until the complexity of what leads to yearly test score increases and decreases is recognized, the harsh reality is that even our best teachers, administrators and school districts will continue spending time on standardized test-centered pep rallies and shaving time from science and civics lessons to drill kids on bubble sheet test-taking tricks.

There are a host of negative consequences of standardized testing above and beyond the incentive it creates to correct students’ answers on bubble test sheets. Now is the time for Duncan to change the public discourse to focus on the assessment limitations of standardized testing. Even the makers of standardized tests admit that increases or decreases in test scores should not be viewed as the sole measurement to evaluate students, teachers, schools or school districts.

Numbers alone — whether those are test-score numbers or numbers of erasures on test-score answer sheets — never have and never will be able to provide the full picture of whether students are working hard enough, teachers are truly effective and whether a quality curriculum is being required. Failure to recognize this makes us all complicit in the test-score pressure that is motivating the unethical rigging of standardized test results.

What Would Diane Ravitch Say?

Diane Ravitch, the former assistant U.S. secretary of education who initially supported No Child Left Behind, now says the mandate for standardized testing is "part of the sickness of American education." See what else told Miller-McCune magazine in a recent interview:

What Would Diane Ravitch Say?


Now is the time for Duncan to clarify whether he agrees with the criticisms of high-stakes testing that have been leveled by his boss. Although the two men are both pushing to reform the No Child Left Behind law, President Obama’s comments about standardized testing appear to put him on a different page than Duncan (even as he sat with the audience when the president's remarks were delivered). Obama has suggested that current levels of standardized testing are incompatible with quality teaching and learning and that, instead of multiple tests each year, kids should be tested less often — “every few years.” The president has said he favors evaluating schools on alternative outcomes like student attendance rates because he believes high-stakes standardized testing results in “teaching to the test” and instructional time lost to teaching test-taking “tricks.”

On the other hand, Duncan, as a proponent of more frequent testing, asserts that good student test scores indicate good teaching thereby implying that bad student test scores indicate bad teaching. Likewise, he touts Department of Education programs like the Teacher Incentive Fund that rewards school districts and states for tying teacher evaluation and pay to students’ standardized test scores. Even as Obama is on record as wanting to move away from evaluating schools based on standardized tests, Duncan is plunging head first into a bigger and broader standardized testing initiative.

In a September speech titled “Beyond the Bubble Tests,” Duncan announced grants to create a “new generation” of state standardized tests in math and language arts. He rattled off a long list of first-time improvements that will make these yet-to-be-created state tests better than current ones: The new state tests will be the first to assess college and career-readiness; the first to assess “critical thinking skills and complex student learning;” the first to be aligned with a new core curriculum consistent across a large number of states; the first capable of enhancing learning by giving teachers timely diagnostic information throughout the school year. And, Duncan has declared, these new tests will, for the first time, “better measure the higher-order thinking skills so vital to success in the global economy of the 21st century.”

Duncan’s description of everything that will be better about these new standardized tests essentially highlights everything that is wrong with current standardized testing. Duncan says that almost everywhere he goes in the country citizens express concern that the public schools’ curriculum, especially in schools with the largest numbers of “disadvantaged” students, has been narrowed as more educators “teach to” standardized tests. These concerns are echoed by Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education appointed by President George H.W. Bush, who says teachers and schools currently have no incentive to teach subjects not on tests like the arts, science, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages or physical education.

While it is easy for the U.S. secretary of education to express his outrage over blatant test-score/answer-sheet tampering, he should take an equally strong stand against educationally detrimental test-gaming and curriculum damage imposed by overemphasis on standardized testing. By recommending clear criteria for the proper weight to afford standardized tests (as the National Research Council recently suggested), Duncan can substantively improve students’ education and lessen the damage from testing policies that cheat students of the state-of-the-art education they need to succeed now and in the future.

Kimberly West-Faulcon is a professor and William M. Rains Fellow at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, where she teaches Constitutional Law and Intelligence, Testing and the Law. Professor West-Faulcon is an expert on the legal implications of standardized testing and has litigated numerous cases challenging the misuse of standardized tests.

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