High-stakes standardized testing: accountability, or inherent corruption? | Bleader

High-stakes standardized testing: accountability, or inherent corruption?

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In Atlanta: Erase To The Top
  • Getty Images/iStockphoto
  • In Atlanta: Erase To The Top
For my story last week on standardized testing, I asked John Barker, chief accountability officer for the Chicago Public Schools, if he was concerned about the practice of teaching to tests. He wasn't. "My philosophy has always been that if it's a good test, teach to it," he told me.

A reader found this sentiment to be "shocking and a testament to the dilapidation and erosion of educational leadership within CPS." In his written comment, the reader went on:

The purpose of education is to teach and develop the academic skills necessary for critical thinking and reasoned expression. A strong and effective public educational system is essential for a vibrant democracy. Put simply, teaching to a test doesn't have anything to do with critical thinking and reasoned expression but everything to do with indoctrination.

One's view of standardized testing depends largely on what one hopes schools will engender—critical thinking, or something more easily measured. Those who feel schools ought to resemble businesses tend to want the latter. The Ford Motor Company "would not have survived the competition had it not been for an emphasis on results," Rod Paige, the education secretary under George W. Bush, wrote in a letter to the New Yorker in 2003. "We must view education the same way. Good schools do operate like a business. They care about outcomes, routinely assess quality, and measure the needs of the children they serve."

This approach deprecates the value of the less measurable, opponents to standardized testing maintain. Worse, the critics say, when jobs or bonuses are on the line, standardized testing is inherently corrupt. They often cite "Campbell's Law," named for methodologist Donald T. Campbell, who in 1976 wrote: "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."

Education researcher Richard P. Phelps thinks many educators are just trying to shirk accountability. "U.S. educators have a long history of telling the public that all is well, even when it isn't," he told me in an e-mail yesterday. "In the absence of external testing, problems in our schools do not go away, they are simply hidden away."

Phelps has staunchly defended standardized testing, while acknowledging its limitations, in several books he's written and edited. He's also the founder of the Nonpartisan Education Review, an online forum. I'd contacted him after coming across an essay he wrote for the Wilson Quarterly in 2011.

"If curricula are carefully developed by educators and the test is written with curricula in mind," Phelps said in that essay, "then teaching to the test means teaching students the knowledge and skills we agree they ought to learn—exactly what our teachers are legally and ethically obligated to do."

Phelps made note of a couple of harms of testing: "Excessive preparation that focuses more on the format of the test and test-taking techniques than on the subject matter, and the reallocation of classroom time from subjects on which students are not tested (often art and physical education) to those on which they are (often reading and mathematics)."

John Barker, chief accountability officer for the Chicago Public Schools: a believer in teaching to good tests
  • Andrea Bauer
  • John Barker, chief accountability officer for the Chicago Public Schools: a believer in teaching to good tests

The excessive prep is often a form of cheating, Phelps wrote—a result of teachers knowing more than they should about what exactly will be on a test, and drilling on those points.

And then there's the more blatant form of cheating: what's done after the test.

On Friday, a grand jury indicted Atlanta's former schools superintendent, Dr. Beverly Hall, and 34 Atlanta teachers, principals, and administrators who "conspired to either cheat, conceal cheating or retaliate against whistle-blowers" in an effort to bolster test scores, according to the indictment.

In August 2010, with rumors of pervasive cheating in Atlanta widespread, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue appointed special prosecutors to investigate, and their 2011 report led to the indictments. Teachers cheated out of fear of being fired, according to the investigators' report, and cheating teachers and principals were also motivated by performance bonuses. The standard cheating method: teachers and administrators simply erased students' answers and corrected them.

Educators aren't the only ones tarnished by the Atlanta scandal. Business doesn't look well either.

Superintendent Hall was considered "untouchable," because of her strong business ties, the New York Times said Saturday in its story about the indictments. The rising test scores under her watch had made Atlanta a "more desirable destination." When now-former governor Perdue—a Republican—challenged the test scores, members of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce strongly resisted his efforts. "They'd say, 'Do you really think there is anything there? We have to make sure we don't hurt the city,'" he told the Times. "Business was insisting on accountability, but they didn't want real accountability."

Business's favorite tool—data—has likewise been sullied. The investigators' report noted:

Almost without exception, teachers and principals said that the single most important factor to this administration is "data." They said that "data is the driver," "data drives instruction," and "the data controls everything."
. . . Data can be properly used as a tool to assess academic progress. But data can also be used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish classroom teachers and principals as a pretext to termination.

Campbell's Law in action? Is cheating inevitable on high-stakes standardized tests? No, Phelps says. He thinks certain straightforward measures can preserve test integrity, and that these measures are worth it.

Read the second part of this post: "Standardized testing: cheating and other problems."

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