Missing the Point on Cheating -- The Incentives Problem is far Bigger

Cheating is just one of many responses to heightened pressure in recent years to deliver the impossible: substantially increased test scores, in short order.
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Recent coverage of the arrest of former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall and dozens of teachers and other district employees allegedly involved in mass doctoring of student test results misses a larger pattern. Cheating is just one of many responses to heightened pressure in recent years to deliver the impossible: substantially increased test scores, in short order. Yes, district-level cheating problems have risen in tandem with this pressure, but so have other forms of gaming the system, all of which pose similar detriments to students. A new report from the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education documents the widespread nature of this problem.

Changing student test scores after the fact is one way to systematically, one student at a time, make it appear that children who have not really learned what they should have did. It deprives those children of real learning, since it removes pressure to provide them with the enriching instruction and other supports needed to help them develop that learning. It rewards teachers, principals and superintendents for delivering what they have not, and it confuses parents (and students themselves) who know quite well that they are not reading at grade level or proficient at long division.

But cheating is not at all the only way to accomplish this. As scholars have documented over the past decade, increased pressure to deliver higher test scores has led to increasingly narrower curriculums. Subjects too far removed from math or reading are neglected or even omitted altogether. At the same time, math and reading content is increasingly geared toward the test, with vocabulary drills taking the place of poetry and repeated arithmetic practice squeezing out more complex problem-solving. Indeed, in its study of "reforms" in Chicago over the past twenty-plus years, the Consortium for Chicago School Research notes with respect to one shift in scores that it:

"Seems to be an artifact of the ways in which students were prepared for the test. ... [This decline] was driven by schools with many low-achieving students--schools that were at risk of accountability sanctions based on students' performance on the tests. These schools had strong incentives to gear instruction specifically towards the content of the high-stakes test, and the types of questions asked on the tests. When the district switched to a different test, students' performance on the tests dropped."

Again, students lose out on real instruction and enrichment, and parents are misled, while school staff and administration are rewarded for gains that never happened.

This kind of gaming of test scores points to yet another tactic--shifting the standard as to what constitutes "proficiency," or "at grade level". This was employed not only in Chicago, by then-CEO Arne Duncan, but also in New York City by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who claimed that reforms had helped halve race-based achievement gaps among NYCPS students in just a few years. After the mayor and chancellor repeatedly made the claim, and success was reported in newspapers there and across the country, more careful scrutiny revealed that virtually all of the purported gains were due to a sharp decrease in the bar above which "proficiency" could be declared. Again, this robbed students who were not proficient by any reasonable standard of the support needed to achieve it, and those who had legitimately achieved it of the distinction they deserved.

The biggest difference across the three is that the first is illegal, while the latter two have come to be semi-accepted by-products of a culture of test obsession. Clearly, however, they do pretty much equal harm to students, their parents and their teachers. These tactics also shine a bright spotlight on a reality that reformers rarely acknowledge: we cannot rely on standardized test scores. Not only are they terrible measures of teacher "effectiveness," as virtually all scholars have long cautioned, they are also increasingly poor measures of student performance, because the high stakes attached to them have stripped them of their validity.

As new information surfaces suggesting that Michelle Rhee could be next subject of investigation for a cheating scandal, "miracles" continue to be revealed as anything but. Indeed, the Texas "miracle," the one credited with starting the obsession with the misuse of test scores, has come full circle. Over 400 superintendents in that state now lead the battle to stop the test-based evaluation madness and get back to real teaching and meaningful learning. They understand that bad incentives drive bad outcomes - let's hope they are able to rouse more support for the right policies than they were for wrongheaded ones.

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