This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Kristen Blair, N.C. Education Alliance Fellow.
RALEIGH — The new school year is upon us, offering promise and, perhaps, penance. Summer’s academic interlude was interrupted all too often by revelations of wrongdoing, as school cheating scandals stacked up nationwide.
In July, Georgia’s governor released findings from a now-infamous investigation into systemic, longstanding cheating in the Atlanta Public Schools. Some 178 teachers and administrators at 44 schools shamelessly corrected students’ answers on standardized tests — even at weekend “changing parties.”
Also that month, allegations emerged that educators at 89 Pennsylvania schools may have doctored students’ test responses. In August, reports indicated officials were investigating cheating at a Connecticut elementary school; 17 teachers and administrators were placed on leave.
Such schools and districts join others where cheating and questionable testing practices have occurred. Yet despite educators’ ethical lapses, demands for mea culpas have been muted.
Instead, many are reserving their wrath for the No Child Left Behind law and high-stakes testing, which base school ratings, penalties, and, increasingly, teacher evaluations on student test performance.
Temptation to inflate scores is unprecedented, The New York Times’ Michael Winerip wrote recently: “Never before have so many had so much reason to cheat.”
Some say high-stakes testing incentivizes, even causes, corruption. In Atlanta, investigators blamed cheating primarily on “pressure to meet targets in the data-driven environment.” The Save Our Schools organization, which links high-stakes testing with cheating, held a national rally to protest test-based accountability and other education policies. SOS claims, “Many school communities have resorted to cheating” in “desperation to raise test scores.”
Such explanations are almost as troubling as the cheating itself. Externalizing the causes of fraudulent behavior leads to ever-shifting situational ethics. This is a slippery slope indeed. Which workplace conditions warrant honesty, and which do not? Who gets to decide?
The truth is, testing neither causes nor justifies flagrant cheating. Cheating is a failure of personal integrity. It’s patently unfair to the multitude of honorable educators to suggest otherwise.
This is not to say that federal education law — the engine driving high-stakes testing — is well-crafted or effective. The law has eroded states’ autonomy and flexibility, and required schools to meet rising, all-or-nothing goals (rather than posting steady student gains).
So the law needs to be modified. Congressional overhaul should take place this year. Unwilling to wait, the U.S. Department of Education announced recently it would offer states exemptions.
Lawmakers, not the Education Department, should fix the law. But they should not jettison test-based accountability. Standardized tests provide objective, useful feedback on student learning.
If kids are floundering, shooting the messenger — in this case, the test — won’t nullify the bad news. Obviously, testing shouldn’t serve as a singular yardstick of teacher or student success. But it is a necessary component of accountability.
What about deterring cheating? Many school districts will need to tighten exam procedures and scrutinize tests (and improbably high scores) more closely. Allegations of educator wrongdoing must be investigated carefully and fairly.
When proven, cheating warrants punitive measures. In Atlanta, guilty educators face termination, perhaps prosecution. In Connecticut, culpable teachers minimally will lose their licenses; Connecticut’s acting education commissioner, George Coleman, has proposed that they fund student retesting and investigation costs, reports the Hartford Courant.
By far the hardest wrong to put right in all of this is the damage done to children. For struggling students who purportedly “aced” tests, irretrievable time has been lost.
Even more fundamentally, we have to wonder what life lessons these kids have internalized about test-taking integrity from adult role models. As the accountability debate rages on, these issues ought to concern us most.