Sunday, April 14, 2013

It's Not the Test That Made Them Cheat

It's Not the Test That Made Them Cheat
Education Week    Published Online April 9, 2013
By Michael J. Feuer

News came down about the indictment of the former Atlanta schools chief Beverly Hall and 35 other current and former officials for their alleged roles in a massive cheating scandal that has rocked the city for the past three years.

There is nothing good to say about cheating on tests.  However, some of the reactions to the scandal have been surprising.  The most troubling response comes from people opposed to standardized testing generally and to current federal policy specifically.  They somewhat gleefully use this sorry episode as the ultimate smoking gun, the perfect we-told-you-so case that clinches their claims about the evils of testing, and the entire reform movement.

William Ayers, an education professor emeritus from the University of Illinois at Chicago, posted, “the Atlanta story proves that teaching toward a simple standardized measure and relentlessly applying state-administered tests to determine the outcome both incentivizes cheating and is a worthless proxy for learning.  The road to the massive cheating scandal in Atlanta runs right through the White House.”

Mr. Feuer has several problems with that logic.

First, shifting the blame for egregious mischief away from the perpetrators and onto the system strikes me as morally and politically bankrupt. Here’s an analogy to consider: Do we react to the worst instances of tax evasion by condemning the concept of taxation rather than by prosecuting the evaders? I assume that Mr. Ayers would not call for abolition of the graduated income tax as a way to finance public goods and redistribute wealth just because the system has its imperfections and because some people lie on their tax returns. Shall we excuse individual or group criminality because certain social institutions create pressures for greed and misconduct? Banking executives accused of fraud will be delighted.

Second, pinning the responsibility for the Atlanta disaster on the White House is an extravagant example of misdirected blame. Maybe current federal policies lead to unwanted outcomes, such as narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test, but that’s a far cry from the outright fraud of the sort listed in the Atlanta indictment.  In any case, there’s no evidence that federal policy causes cheating, or that “cheating is inevitable.”

Third, indicting testing, rather than cheating, undermines the possibility for reform in the design and uses of tests.

What’s often ignored in the popular frenzy against testing is that tests can help gauge individual learning, give teachers additional information about their students’ progress, provide objective indicators of student achievement, and expose inequalities in the allocation of educational resources.

Read all of Michael Feuer’s excellent article at

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