The Ohio state auditor is investigating the practice of “scrubbing,” or dropping students from attendance rolls so they don’t count against test scores. The former El Paso, Texas, superintendent is in prison for using truant officers to encourage at-risk students to drop out. Other testing scandals have popped up in Mobile, Ala., Dallas, Houston, Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis, and East St. Louis, Ill. And everywhere USA Today looked in a 2011 investigation, they discovered statistically improbable aberrations in test scores, identifying 1,610 examples of anomalies that an Arizona State University professor compared to “a weight-loss clinic where you lose 100 pounds a day.”
Organized, systematic cheating is the inevitable result of attaching high stakes to standardized tests, and it will continue as long as we’re invested in the illusion that the system is working.
The latest example came late on Good Friday, March 29, when an Atlanta grand jury indicted 35 teachers, administrators and principals under laws meant to target the mafia. Dr. Beverly Hall, the retired Atlanta schools superintendent, faces charges of “racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and making false statements.” In 2009, she was named National Superintendent of the Year and praised by Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Atlanta business leaders tried to get former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to back off his investigation. Everyone wanted it to be true.
The real problem with uncovering test-cheating scandals isn’t that they’re hard to find, it’s that it’s hard to get education officials to look. This is a glaring hole in No Child Left Behind. States use scores to evaluate teachers, to reward superintendents, to close schools and to promote children. But NCLB offers no incentive to catch cheating, and as the Atlanta and El Paso scandals proved, prosecutors only go after the worst offenders.
When a teacher reported cheating in a Mobile school to her principal, he told the teacher to “sleep on it.” When the teacher went to state authorities, the Alabama education department investigated but skipped a computer analysis to screen for questionable erasures.
“You start doing that, you’re on a witch hunt,” said the education commissioner.
Texas pays its testing vendor to look for excessive erasures, but it does not ask for suspicious concentrations of erasures at schools, a typical indicator of organized cheating.
“It’s not illegal to erase on tests,” said a spokeswoman for Texas’ education department. “There can be legitimate reasons for that.”
Standardized tests have a valid role in education, but closing down schools or giving principals cash bonuses based on test results is new. That started when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush instituted a business mindset in Texas public schools and measured all schools by their tests scores. Enron did much the same thing with its stock price, gaming the system by hiding debt and booking future earnings. The stock price soared while the former pipeline company cratered.
In Texas public schools, dropouts rose, preparing for the tests ate up more than half the school year, and scores rose. Bush proclaimed it the “Texas Miracle.” Many of the schools he cited as proof of his miracle were later investigated for cheating, including Wesley Elementary in Houston, where the principal coached teachers “to administer a test the Wesley way,” which meant walking around the classroom and standing behind a student until they chose the correct answer. But by then, achieving miraculous gains on test scores had become a national goal.
At least Charlie Brown had the good sense to wonder whether Lucy van Pelt would really hold the football instead of swiping it away when he tried to kick it. When it comes to testing scandals, we assume everything is great and forget that we keep ending up on our backs, dazed and wondering how teachers, principals and administrators could possibly have scammed the system of high-stakes testing yet again. And as long as we link rewards and punishments to how our kids fill in tiny little ovals, we’re going to experience an endless cycle of cheating.
There’s a reason we close our eyes when trying to believe in fairies and miracles in education. It’s because if we opened our eyes, we’d have to face the facts that high-stakes standardized testing isn’t working.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JasStanford.