FairTest: Cheating Will Continue Without Major Reform

FairTest continues to beat its drum, trying to bring attention to what it sees as the failure of education policy that mandates widespread academic testing. After a recent investigative report published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which exposed rampant standardized test cheating taking place nationwide, Robert Schaeffer, FairTest's Public Education Director, wrote an editorial decrying the negative impact test cheating has had on academic outcomes of American students.

Schaeffer writes that over the last few years, FairTest documented cases of test scores manipulation in 33 states, an inevitable result of over-reliance on those scores for high stakes decisions that range from teacher salaries to district funding.

As the renowned social scientist Donald Campbell concluded more than 30 years ago, "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor." Campbell continued, "[W]hen test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways."

While more security during test administration would ameliorate the problem, this will not do away with the system that incentivizes cheating. The only permanent solution is a completely different approach, that either relies less on test results or does away with test-based evaluations entirely. In order to be effective, the reform must take place on the federal, state and local district levels.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and many governors regularly issue high-sounding statements about assessment reform. At the same time, the federal government is adding incentives for cheating by ratcheting up the emphasis on standardized exam scores.

Many state officials are going along to win federal funds. Initiatives such as Race to the Top and the criteria for waivers from No Child Left Behind escalate the role of annual high-stakes annual testing. New requirements to assess teachers based on their students' scores, in particular, virtually guarantee even more cheating will take place.

Putting an end to testing does not mean putting an end to accountability entirely. However, Schaeffer contends that the current reliance on high-stakes testing has not improved educational quality. He is backed up in this conclusion by the Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education study, released last year by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science.

Cracking down on cheating is necessary but far from sufficient. The reports by the Georgia Office of Special Investigators should be a national model of "best practices" for detecting and responding to testing irregularities. Unfortunately, educational bureaucrats may have vested interests in protecting current policies and personnel.

04 3, 2012
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