Despite Cheating Scandals, Testing and Teaching Are Not at Odds

Cross-posted from the Washington Post.

In the wake of the Atlanta cheating scandal and recent cheating allegations in other school districts (including Washington, DC), On Leadership convened a roundtable on how best to approach teacher incentives in the U.S. education system — with opinion pieces by Duke University behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Howard Gardner, and Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein.

Recent news reports of widespread or suspected cheating on standardized tests in several school districts around the country have been taken by some as evidence that we must reduce reliance on testing to measure student growth and achievement. Others have gone even farther, claiming that cheating is an inevitable consequence of “high-stakes testing” and that we should abandon testing altogether.

To be sure, there are lessons to be learned from these jarring incidents, but the existence of cheating says nothing about the merits of testing. Instead, cheating reflects a willingness to lie at children’s expense to avoid accountability—an approach I reject entirely.

It is also an approach rejected by the vast majority of educators, who would never participate in or excuse cheating.  The Atlanta cheating scandal has been described as the worst known incident of systemic cheating, so it is worth noting that even there investigators found cheating in 44 out of 2,232 schools in Georgia.

Unfortunately, cheating does happen. The 1990s saw a rash of cases where state and school officials masked underperformance of low-income or minority students or students with disabilities by excluding or hiding their test results. No Child Left Behind helped address this problem by requiring transparency around achievement gaps, but it prompted another form of cheating by setting rigid pass/fail targets based on test scores that failed to measure progress. Several states, including my home state of Illinois, simply lowered their standards to claim “better” test scores as success—essentially lying to children and parents. Now as NCLB’s deadline for 100-percent proficiency approaches and performance goals grow steeper, we learn of egregious, systemic cheating in Atlanta and suspected cheating elsewhere.

Each of these instances is rooted in the pernicious notion that by resisting accountability, you can avoid it.

To deny the importance of regular, comprehensive measurement of student growth and academic progress because of cheating is to embrace that twisted ethos, sending exactly the wrong message to students.

Competing in a global economy is the ultimate high-stakes test for American students, and there are no shortcuts to success. Closing our eyes to the knowledge requirements of a 21st century economy will not make them go away.

At the same time, it is important to remember that measuring student growth is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Poorly designed tests do not advance the goal of providing every American child a high-quality, well-rounded education. They also don’t tell you very much about the effectiveness of teachers. That’s why the Department of Education has put $350 million toward developing a new generation of assessments, and why we support evaluations based on multiple measures—including principal observation, peer review, classroom work, student and parent feedback, and other locally developed measures.


  1. Low-performing schools, are fed by low-performing students, not low-performing teachers. The best thing that you can do for these low-performing students is (1) establish discipline within the school environment and (2) free up these teachers to be creative so that they can figure out a way to motivate these “at risk” students. Putting the teachers in straight-jackets, making them teach prescripted curriculum in a specific manner under oppressive top-down, heavy-handed snoopervision will simply suffocate, frustrate, and eventually eliminate the teachers, and these “at risk” children will continue to be disengaged from the learning process.

    Pressure by Government, State, and County Test scores have suffocated Teacher creativity, and in some cases like Atlanta Public Schools, cheating on test to hold on to your job and make AYP was the alternative to obtain this goal.

    When incentive pay is given based on test scores, and your teaching career becomes in jeopardy because it’s solely based on performance, our public schools have a big problem.



  2. I am a HS Math teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Some of the biggest barriers to my success, and my student’s success, are the constant interuptions, and student pull outs, in my classroom.

    The following activities happened in the final 2 weeks as I reviewed for the high stakes testing. Incessant announcements, and close to 100 summons out of class for fall programming, clearing absences, and dean’s investigations. 3 field trips of questionable timing (if not merit), school activities of every sort, and special ed meetings where I am pulled out of my classroom during instructional time. We also had school assemblies where students are not paying attention, a campus clean-up, questionable feel good “mentoring” meetings, early release of students for teacher professional development time, even a prom the weekend before the test (so you know where students were on Thur./Friday), an Earth Day event, a staff appreciation luncheon, etc., etc. I understand the reasoning for all of the above, but nothing beats good old fashioned hard work and focus.

    In HS, the Art, Music, Foreign Language, PE, Vocational (wood, auto, metal, culinary arts, etc.), or elective teacher doesn’t care about your scores. The secretary, counselor, librarian, nurse, or dean doesn’t care, either. Of course, when I mentioned the interruptions at a staff meeting, I the got an earful about how short sighted that viewpoint is, but we have horrible scores and are being put out for bid to the private charters this year. At least I knew what was at stake. You achieve what you emphasize. Tell me what I have to achieve and then, please, get out of the way.

    Lastly, the above issues, are all issues of leadership and focus. Education is full of educators, but what is missing in education, is leaders. Great leadership is a funny thing that you can’t always describe, but you know it when you see it. Leadership training, and leadership opportunities, for everyone, is needed in education. Some of our administrators couldn’t lead us to the restroom, much less to victory. Most do not understand that true leadership is about empowering others. One great administrator would say three very important words to me, “Please, help me.” Those words are so inclusive and team building, that I wanted to give my all for him, but the single greatest leadership question ever asked of me was, “What is it that I can do, what is that you need, that will help you do your job better?”

  3. Fixing the No Child Left behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 is a start but is it the solution. The unrealistic notion that all children will reach 100 % proficiency for Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) in the year 2014 is part of the NCLB act. Do we really want to fix something that does not work? If a school does not meet AYP, they do not receive federal education funds. Low performing schools are some of the most needy schools. Is that why some of the Atlanta schools cheated on the test?

    As an educator, I often wonder if high school students are dropping out because they are not engaged to learn. Schools are testing the students not teaching. NCLB has created a domino effect that is destroying education. If we build on its foundation, we may be building new problems in reforming education.

    As a step toward educational reform, let’s change the formula of measurement. NCLB has produced quick numbers giving a false sense of student achievement. High school students are not prepared for college, because they have been taught to choose the best answer on one test. They do not know how to solve problems. Parents believe their students have mastered all the standards, when they pass one mandated test. The formula should include a student portfolio of their achievements throughout the school year.

    Next step to student achievement is common sense. Inspire students with the knowledge of science, math, history, art, and music. Reading and writing are embedded in their interests. It is a human instinct to learn what you want and need. Project-based learning teaches critical thinking skills challenging students and engaging their curiosity to learn what interests them.

  4. I totally agree!. Until teachers are given training and support IN the classroom, I can’t see how one can expect significant changes in student outcomes, i.e. learning. I teach in a teacher preparation program and for the most part teachers education is essentially the same as it was two decades ago.

  5. The misguided understandings of education continue to be put forth by the people at the top. Arne’s statement that, “Each of these instances is rooted in the pernicious notion that by resisting accountability, you can avoid it” reveals his totally flawed understanding of the real problems with testing.

    If I could correct his statement, it would read thus: Each of these instances is rooted in the pernicious notion that 100% proficiency will EVER be possible, and that testing alone is able to provide an accurate picture of what a student has learned, or how well a teacher has taught.

    This scandal is merely a symptom of a much greater problem–the testing virus that has infected our entire educational system. Read more about this and other Real Insights into Education on my blog:

  6. It would be nice if the $350 million dollars being put towards developing a new generation of assessments was put towards reducing the student/teacher ratio and finding other ways to support students in the classroom instead. It baffles me that the major factor in education reform surrounds testing, accountability, and evaluation versus proper support for students, teachers, and administrators. How about a 10:1 ratio for classrooms? How about adequate curriculum and equity in technology and otherwise amongst diverse school districts? How about proper training of administrators to support, and not just evaluate, the teachers with whom they are supposed to partner? Put your money in those areas, to start, and you will see true education reform. Why doesn’t our government stop ‘pretending’ to care about true reform and actually partner with educators to achieve it?

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