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

It is not surprising that the recent Atlanta school cheating scandal earned so much attention. Its massive scope and details of corruption, including pizza parties for erasing students’ incorrect answers, shocked the nation.

Focusing solely on Atlanta, or even other recent cheating cases around the nation, including our nation’s capital, is a mistake. These are not isolated incidents. Rather, they are episodes in a series of unfortunate events spawned by the nation’s government-mandated testing obsession. Considered in light of a recent National Research Council (NRC) report confirming other negative impacts of high-stakes testing, they should be a giant wake-up call for policymakers.

The report from the Georgia Office of Special Investigators makes clear the link between high-stakes testing and the “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” in the district. The report, said school leaders, often set unreasonable impossible test score targets and “put unreasonable pressure on teachers and principals to achieve targets.”

Atlanta school leaders were taking their cue from the federal No Child Left Behind law, which mandates 100% “proficiency” on state tests by 2014. That goal is now widely understood to be unattainable.

The epidemic of cheating from Los Angeles to New York City and Orlando is rooted in this irrational mandate. Rather than address the problem, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has raised the stakes ever higher. His Race to the Top program’s incentives link teacher evaluations to student test results and expand the amount of testing. This can only intensify the pressure to “do whatever it takes” to boost test scores, a problem the Atlanta investigators clearly identified.

The recent NRC report puts the cheating epidemic into context by reviewing research on the impact of high stakes testing on teaching and learning.

“Incentives and Test Based Accountability in Education ” concluded that the various forms of high-stakes testing —including NCLB, judging teachers based on student scores, and high school graduation tests --have resulted in few if any positive effects. The negative consequences are large and clear:

· High stakes tests “have not increased student achievement enough to bring the United States close to the levels of the highest achieving countries” and “the overall effects on achievement tend to be small and are effectively zero for a number of programs.”

· High school exit exam programs decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement.

· Educators facing sanctions tend to focus on actions that improve test scores, such as teaching test-taking strategies or drilling students closest to meeting proficiency cutoffs, rather than improving learning.

When schooling is reduced to test preparation, children are cheated out of a good education. Teaching to the test also inflates scores, so that the public receives misleading information about their schools.

As a mother of public school children, it troubles me that students are living and breathing in this atmosphere of “fear, intimidation and retaliation,” not to mention corruption, from the top down.

Duncan has taken the easy way out, dismissing scandals like Atlanta as aberrations, blaming teachers, and demanding more test security. His proposals ignore the root causes of the problem, as documented by the Georgia and NRC studies.

It makes much more sense to hear repeated reports of test cheating as a loud wakeup call. America’s education policymakers should acknowledge that we’re on the wrong track. A serious course correction is needed immediately.

Countries like Finland that are universally praised for their educational excellence have steered clear of high-stakes testing, with enviable improvements in real learning and no headlines about cheating and other forms of corruption.

If we don’t want to helplessly await the next scandal, let’s recognize the damage being done by NCLB, Race to the Top and other misuses of testing, and adopt better approaches to school assessment and accountability.


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