The test didn’t make them cheat

A tough piece I posted by Bill Ayers about the Atlanta test cheating indictments said the road to the scandal “runs right through the White House.” Ayers, a retired professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago who may be better known for his radical activism during the 1960s and ’70s. (During the 2008 presidential campaign right-wing commentators incorrectly said he had a close relationship with then candidate Barack Obama, whom Ayers supported.)

Michael J. Feuer, dean of the graduate school of education and human development at the George Washington University and president-elect of the National Academy of Education, takes exception to Ayers’ post in this equally hard-hitting piece in Education Week. Feuer questions Ayers’ argument on moral and other grounds. Here are some excerpts:

… For Bill Ayers, an education professor emeritus from the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Atlanta story proves that “teaching toward a simple standardized measure and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the ‘outcomes’ both incentivizes cheating and is a worthless proxy for learning.”

 

Mr. Ayers goes further. Not only does he attribute the alleged cheating to the testing policy, thereby essentially absolving Ms. Hall and her colleagues of their own ethical and professional lapses, but he uses the example to issue a sprawling condemnation of the U.S. Department of Education, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and even the president. As he puts it, “the road to the massive cheating scandal in Atlanta runs right through the White House.”

 

I have four problems with this logic (echoed in other commentaries, such as Jason Stanford’s bold assertion in the Huffington Post that “high-stakes testing makes cheating inevitable”; and FairTest’s pronouncement in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed last year that “[t]hese scandals are the predictable result of overreliance on test scores”).

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, even if one could make an evidence-informed case that testing “inevitably” leads to illegal behavior—as if high-stakes testing overwhelms the human capacity for moral choice—there is the added problem of guilt by association. 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….

For the rest of Feuer’s argument, click here.

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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