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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 09/14/2011

The cause of standardized test cheating and how to stop it

This was written by Lisa Guisbond, a policy analyst for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve standardized testing practices and evaluations of students, teachers and schools.

By Lisa Guisbond

A top-ranked Los Angeles charter school now joins the seemingly endless list of schools and districts suspected of succumbing to a nationwide cheating pandemic: Animo Leadership Charter High School, run by Green Dot Public Schools. In Monday’s cheating news, the New York Board of Regents authorized an independent investigator to study how the state Board of Education handles cheating allegations.

FairTest has documented confirmed cheating cases in 30 states and the District of Columbia in just the past three academic years. Hardly a week, or a day, goes by without a reminder that the mounting evidence of cheating in cities and states across the nation shows no signs of abating. Sadly, neither does the damage caused by the standardized testing mania that underlies the cheating scandal, as explained in a new FairTest fact sheet.

What to do? Is the answer simply more and better policing of standardized testing? That’s basically what school leaders in Los Angeles and New York are promising as the antidote.

That’s also the response from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and others who cling to their faith in high-stakes testing as the main tool for “accountability” of schools, students and teachers. They acknowledge that it is not possible to meet No Child Left Behind’s mandate that most students score proficient on math and reading tests by 2014, but they deny the evidence of educational havoc that has resulted from the effort by schools to meet unrealistic testing goals. And they insist that high-stakes testing does not create the environment of “fear and intimidation” state investigators found in Georgia. Instead, they claim cheating incidents are anomalies and better policing is the solution.

Duncan does recognize that the cheating scandals endanger test-driven “accountability.” In a June letter to chief state school officers, he wrote, “As I’m sure you know, even the hint of testing irregularities and misconduct in the test administration process could call into question school reform efforts and undermine the state accountability systems that you have painstakingly built over the past decade.”

Indeed, the scandals call into question the educational assessment and accountability choices that have been imposed on public school administrators, teachers and students, especially in the last decade of the No Child Left Behind era.

These strategies have not produced educational improvement. At the same time, they have led to significant declines in the rates of gain on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is sometimes called the nation’s report card. Yet policymakers continue on the same discredited path. Duncan’s current efforts to increase the use of student test scores to judge teachers will only add fuel to the cheating fire.

Duncan’s proposed cure — intensified test policing and enforcement --won’t get at the root causes of the corruption. Unfortunately, it is likely to further degrade the school climate in which children are trying to learn.

As we point out in our fact sheet, “Tests, Cheating and Educational Corruption,” the symptoms won’t go away until we address the underlying disease. As social scientist Donald Campbell predicted in the 1970s, “Widespread corruption that undermines educational quality is an inevitable consequence of the overuse and misuse of high-stakes testing.”

The real cheating problem is rooted in the overuse and misuse of tests. It goes way beyond efforts to change wrong answers. Most destructively, high-stakes testing robs students of a quality education and the public of accurate information on how our children and their schools are doing.

Score boosting techniques include teaching to the test, overlooking untested subjects and skills, focusing on students most likely to clear the bar and ignoring those who are far behind or ahead. Officials can also manipulate information, lower test difficulty or cut-off points, and change the pool of tested students, all to inflate scores.

As long as teachers and administrators face the unrealistic demands of No Child Left Behind and related high-stakes testing schemes, they will face the pressure to improve scores “by hook or by crook.” Meanwhile, sensible and effective approaches to student assessment and school accountability lie on the shelf, waiting for someone to develop the political will to stop the madness.

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