Within the next few years,
a new generation of standardized tests is expected to be launched across the country to measure whether students are meeting common academic standards in English and math. Test score data will be the life blood of new systems for rating teachers and schools. A lack of public confidence in the integrity of testing could deal a serious blow to this agenda.
What’s more, questions about possible cheating have focused on big cities at the center of the school reform debate, where rising scores had generated cautious optimism about efforts to raise the performance of children from poor families.
“It’s a real blot on the copy book that needs to be addressed one way or the other. You can’t just sweep this under the rug,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant education secretary in the Reagan administration and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank. He said cheating allegations should be vigorously investigated and wrongdoers punished.
In June, Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged state education chiefs to get tough on cheating.
“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,” Duncan wrote in a letter.
Duncan also confirmed this month that he has been in discussions with his department’s inspector general about evidence of test irregularities in some cities, including Atlanta and Washington. A spokesman for the D.C. inspector general said that Education Department investigators were assisting a local inquiry.
Skeptics of test-driven accountability say that such investigations show how standardized testing has skewed public education, driving some teachers and principals to cross ethical and legal lines to protect their jobs. The incidents have added energy to an emerging backlash from teachers who contend that they have been unfairly pilloried for underachieving schools.
“High-stakes testing inevitably winds up in distortions like this,” said Kenneth Bernstein, a government teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt and one of the organizers of a “Save Our Schools” rally planned in Washington on July 30.
Testing advocates reject the notion that increased pressure spawns cheating. Andres Alonso, chief executive of Baltimore schools, where officials uncovered cheating on state tests at two elementary schools in 2009 and 2010, told the Baltimore Sun that such episodes reveal only that “unethical people are going to do unethical things.”