Teacher: Yes, the testing culture does contribute to cheating

I recently published a post by Bill Ayers about the recent Atlanta test cheating indictments that said the road to the scandal “runs right through the White House.” Ayers is 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). Then, Michael J. Feuer, dean of the Graduate school of Education and Human Development at George Washington University and president-elect of the National Academy of Education, took issue with Ayers in this piece in Education Week, which I wrote about here. Below, teacher Steven Lin, named Elementary School Teacher of the Year in Chesapeake, Va., takes on Feuer.

Lin is a fifth-grade teacher at E.W. Chittum Elementary School, and he is a doctoral student in the GWU graduate school of education, which Feuer heads. He said he believes he was named his city’s Elementary Teacher of the Year in part because of his position that “out-of-touch policies and the education-industrial complex risk de-professionalizing teachers and stripping them of an effective voice in regulating their occupation.” Further, he said, “That I was selected on this platform strikes me as a mandate to further voice my opinions.”

By Steven Lin

In a commentary on Education Week’s website, Michael Feuer, dean of The George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development, addressed the cheating controversy in Atlanta Public Schools, a scandal that led to the recent indictment of former superintendent, Beverly Hall. Very strongly, Dr. Feuer rejected a commentary on The Answer Sheet blog by educator Bill Ayers, who questioned the role of high-stakes testing as an adverse social policy.

Instead, Dr. Feuer proclaimed, “It’s not the test that made them cheat.”  He offered four points to attack testing critics’ belief that we should not only analyze the culpability of individual perpetrators, but also the nature of high-stakes testing on the human beings within the school system.  Not only did Dr. Feurer make the flawed assumption that testing critics hope to excuse guilty teachers, but he narrowed the scope of his own analysis to the point of fatal over-simplicity.  In the end, he ignored any discussion of the legitimate effects that social policy might have on humans.

Renowned sociologist Eliot Freidson once wrote about the importance of considering the nuances of environmental context in social policy:

 I argue that the ultimate practical and moral reality of human society lies in what concrete people do and how they interpret their problems in the settings of everyday life.  I argue further that the test of the value of any formal social policy is to be found in that everyday experience rather than in the highly selective abstractions of the statistics, accounting devices and indicators found in official documents.

Indeed, I argue that high-stakes testing is a social policy that affects the working lives and learning environments of teachers and students.  Even Dr. Feuer acknowledged, albeit implicitly, that the foundational issue at the core of this scandal is the high-stakes nature of testing, and not really about the usefulness of tests administered in good faith.  As far as I have read, no reasonable critic of high-stakes testing (including Dr. Ayers or Valerie Strauss) has ever come out against the basic idea of testing.  Those who have condemned high-stakes tests, the so-called “testing critics,” have done so as a result of how tests have been used, and how those seeking to de-professionalize educators have perpetuated them.

Dr. Feuer made a flawed comparison between testing critics’ logic and the ludicrous idea that we ought to throw away the tax system simply because it too has compelled some citizens to cheat.  On one hand, the calculation of money is a concrete and finite task.  On the other hand, the calculation of true learning is incredibly ambiguous (quite problematic even with value-added tests).  On one hand, there is little argument about how much we earn annually.  On the other hand, there is a lot of argument about how much we learn in a school year.  On one hand, citizens (with their watchful eyes on tax policies) have a voice within the government that votes to levy those taxes.  On the other hand, teaching professionals have no voice whatsoever inside for-profit corporations that use public monies and contracts to administer high-stakes tests.  It is a major red flag that teachers are left out of the education-industrial complex, and it deposes any notion of democracy, a concept that still exists (in theory) with taxpayers.

Nobody has excused Beverly Hall, the former superintendent of the Atlanta school system who was indicted by prosecutors who claimed she had run a “corrupt” organization that punished and rewarded teachers financially on the basis of standardized test scores.  Critics of the testing system have not absolved the key players, but have simply pointed to the contextual influences of the testing system upon human beings within it.  Both testing foes and proponents recognize that Dr. Hall, along with her leadership team, is ultimately the biggest goat in the story.

Furthermore, nobody has refused to condemn the act of cheating.  Rather, testing critics accept a more nuanced narrative of the scandal.  They present a story that condemns high-stakes testing AND cheating.  With that, Dr. Feuer and testing critics actually agreed that tests are very useful as formative measures (though not always for summative and evaluative decisions).  However, Dr. Feuer failed to recognize the reality of systemic testing in today’s public schools.  Systemic high-stakes testing has NEVER encouraged teachers to use tests as formative assessments.

Consider this.  How can teachers be made to fear failure, and still be convinced to earnestly engage in error analysis?  The fear of failure demands the elimination of errors, upon which there would be nothing to analyze!

Ultimately, testing critics go much deeper than Dr. Feuer did in their analysis of the scandal in Atlanta.  In one form or another, they point out that environments such as that alleged in Atlanta present the classic sociological phenomenon of “diffusion of responsibility,” along with a host of other flaws regarding the compartmentalization of job descriptions within bureaucracies (see the Milgram studies at Yale, as well as a host of organizational theories that seek to offer alternatives to bureaucracies).  Taking all of this into account, one would understand that key players should remain culpable.  However, blame (and punishment) should be administered accordingly and relatively.  If Dr. Hall is guilty of fostering such a toxic environment, then she and her leadership team must receive primary blame.  Teachers who were pressured into cheating, directly or indirectly, should receive secondary blame.

This leads to issues of working condition.  Research is pretty unanimous in declaring the importance of a healthy work environment, one that values its organizational members.  Dr. Feuer seems to ignore this, along with mounting policies that have only served to erode teachers’ professional identities (such as unfunded mandates, coercive tactics that compel teachers to cheat, and the irresponsible use of tests as a evaluative measure of a teacher’s competency).

In the end, proponents of high-stakes tests will find themselves agreeing with Dr. Feuer’s opinions.  In doing so, they will accept a simplistic view of the situation in Atlanta and place blame squarely on Dr. Hall, her administration, and her teachers.  On the other hand, testing critics will view the scandal through a more complex lens, seeing not just a systematic failure of leadership and process, but also a systemic failure by our local and state governments to safeguard our public schools from arbitrary and inappropriate measures of our children’s achievement.

Testing is not bad.  It can be useful.  Indeed, it is useful and necessary for the development of strong instruction.  When used in good faith, tests serve as informative assessments.  But the evaluative and high-stakes nature that drives today’s testing obsession has not demonstrated that good faith.  Instead, high-stakes tests have been used to terrorize teachers, students, and communities.  In that sense, testing is truly as bad as it gets.  Because of that, we cannot put on the blinders and simply absolve the testing conundrum from our analyses of Atlanta’s cheating scandal.

Here’s another piece of wisdom by Freidson:

 Administrative statistics and accounts do not merely reflect the activity of those workers; they are created by them with their own purposes in mind.  To interpret them wisely, one must know how and why they were created, as well as the broader context of activity from which they were selected.  More reliable than inspired guesswork is direct, systematic qualitative study of the everyday settings of work or practice.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.

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Valerie Strauss · April 15, 2013