The Cheating Will Continue Until Morale Improves

A new General Accounting Office report demonstrates that cheating by school officials on standardized tests has become commonplace despite the use of security measures the report recommends.
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Atlanta wasn't an isolated incident. Neither was El Paso, or Washington, DC, or Columbus. A new General Accounting Office report demonstrates that cheating by school officials on standardized tests has become commonplace despite the use of security measures the report recommends. The only solution is one that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has so far refused -- removing the high stakes attached to standardized testing.

The latest embarrassment is in Columbus, where this month Ohio State Auditor Dave Yost seized records at 20 high schools. This is part of a two-year-old investigation into "scrubbing" 2.8 million attendance records of students who failed tests. Yost has recently widened his investigation to look into whether school administrators also changed grades to boost graduation rates.

A GOA report released May 16 recommends adopting "leading practices to prevent test irregularities." However, the report reveals that while all states and the District of Columbia use at least some of the recommended best practices, 33 states had confirmed instances of test cheating in the last two school years. And states where the worst offenses are occurring already have adopted most of the practices identified in the report, making it unlikely that greater security will improve test integrity.

Ohio employs five of the nine security plans recommended by the GOA report. Atlanta, where the superintendent and 34 other educators were recently indicted for changing test answers, has adopted eight of nine security practices, as has Texas, where the former El Paso superintendant is now in federal prison for a scheme to encourage low-performing students to drop out. And Washington, D.C., where 191 teachers at 70 schools were implicated in a rash of wrong-to-right erasure marks on tests, uses every single security measure.

The Department of Education responded to the GAO's findings by holding a symposium on test integrity and issuing a follow-up report on best practices and policies. But the federal government convening a meeting and issuing yet another report might be even less effective at stopping cheating than increased security.

The report also noted that linking awards and recognition to improving test scores and threatening the jobs of principals for low test scores "could provide incentives to cheat." But at a conference of education writers in April, Sec. Arne Duncan denied that linking test scores to career outcomes could drive educators to criminally manipulate the system.

"I reject the idea that the system forces people to cheat," he said.

Maybe so, but cheating now seems inherent in the system, and our Education Secretary seems incurious as to why. It's even hard to get him to admit there is an epidemic of test cheating. Asked about the Ohio investigation, Duncan said, "I almost don't know of another situation like this."

The tragedy of testing scandals is that they typically occur in schools that serve working-class, minority children, and these were exactly the kids who suffered, in the well-meaning words of George W. Bush, the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

By making test scores the sole measure of their success and rewarding educators for ludicrous increases in scores, the system is leaving behind the very children it was set up to help. As long as cheating remains a part of our country's education policy, "decisions based on test results may be faulty, and lead to damaging results, including failing to identify and provide resources for underperforming schools and students most in need of academic support," reported the GAO.

At the education writers' conference, Sec. Duncan declined to endorse the only solution that would solve this problem. When asked whether he would support a moratorium on using the tests for accountability, Sec. Duncan professed confusion.

"We're trying a lot of things, but, a moratorium to what, for what? We're talking to a lot of people ... but that's the best I can tell you right now," he said.

Removing the high stakes from standardized tests would take away the incentives to cheat and return testing to its original, intended purposes -- to diagnose where schools and students need improvement. Sec. Duncan can do better than holding a meeting, issuing a report, and calling it a day, but until he addresses the root causes -- to paraphrase the Japanese submarine commander's famous phrase -- the cheating will continue until morale improves.

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