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Let’s Not Allow Test Cheating Scandals to Lead to Faulty Conclusions

Let’s go over it again: Standardized tests are far from the be-all and end-all of education. But if we’re not going to put money in student backpacks and make schools directly accountable to parents, how can such assessments NOT be used as a key component of measuring student progress, teacher effectiveness, and school quality? If the test is broken, fix it or find a new one.

Nevertheless, the predictable overreactions return as more news this week filters out of Atlanta that shows the city’s terrible cheating scandal was bigger and more systemic than previously reported. I had thought of the comparison to students cheating on tests before, but a national expert picks an even better analogy:

Abandoning testing would “be equivalent to saying ‘O.K., because there are some players that cheated in Major League Baseball, we should stop keeping score, because that only encourages people to take steroids,’ ” said Thomas J. Kane, director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, who has received funding from the Gates Foundation.

Now my faithful readers know I’m not a naysaying, “we ain’t never done it that way before” curmudgeon. If we find a better way to assess student learning, let’s go for it. Adaptive online tests offer hope of that someday, along with the promise of more secure systems that could better prevent cheating.

But what if the story has got everyone too fixated on the test itself? Writing at Dropout Nation, Los Angeles teacher Peter D. Ford III makes a provocative case that it’s some of his colleagues in the profession who bear more of the blame for giving students butterflies about standardized exams:

I suspect the Atlanta teachers caught up in the scandal were either not teaching content or curricula or weren’t teaching it well. Thus they felt pressure to cheat. I also suspect administrators were trying to achieve success in spite of the uneven content instruction. So they also felt the pressure to cheat. Improvements in student achievement doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years and a continuum of teachers teaching content to see real, consistent increases in student learning.

National columnist Cal Thomas also weighs in to make an even more radical case:

Instead, as Atlanta would suggest, public school children are subject to all manner of manipulation and disservice by people charged with educating them. Perhaps if parents had the freedom to send their children to a school they believed would offer them a better shot at true success they would fare better. Could school choice be the answer?

Anyone who asks that question is likely to get an affirmative answer from me, and this case is no different. Even in cases where students and parents exercise this kind of choice, they need reliable instruments to tell whether and how much learning has improved. Yet Thomas also makes a compelling argument that the education monopoly’s self-protecting cocoon itself feeds the pressure to deceive and manipulate.

With greater choice is where we will find truer accountability and responsibility. Time to stop blaming the tests, to insist on better overall instruction, and to empower families rather than bureaucrats with the most important decisions that matter. Will that approach eliminate cheating altogether? Certainly not. But it undermines the incentive without also undermining the expectation for better results.