Perverse incentives compel teachers to cheat

One-size-fits-all testing is a charade with no outs for educators

April 20, 2015 2:00AM ET

The April 1 conviction of 11 Atlanta educators in a massive school cheating scandal was a long time in the making, and not just because allegations of possible chicanery first surfaced in 2009. No, transgressions of this sort have been all but guaranteed ever since the pressures of federal initiatives such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top made standardized testing the arbiter of both student and teacher success. In the Atlanta case, according to a state investigation, officials engaged in “organized and systemic misconduct” to falsify student test scores in an effort to maintain their job security.

Despite the shameful nature of these actions, many outside observers find it hard to fault educators who were caught in a system rigged against fairness, especially because the misbehavior extended all the way up the food chain to the Atlanta superintendent of schools. Although the actions of the Atlanta teachers were extreme, cheating practices of varying degrees persist in schools across the country. These practices will proliferate as long as educators are evaluated on the basis of deeply flawed rating systems.

Amid the current national emphasis on one-size-fits-all tests, the problem is not that there’s an incentive to cheat. It’s that there is no incentive not to cheat. In the Atlanta case, teachers complicit in the scheme to erase student answers received handsome bonuses (PDF), while teachers who fell short of the exacting benchmarks or who reported on colleagues were terminated. A 2003 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that “relatively small changes in incentives” affect the degree of educator indiscretion, leading to cheating “in a minimum of 4 to 5 percent of elementary school classrooms annually.”

According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, as of 2014, testing fraud has occurred (PDF) in 39 states and the District of Columbia. In California 23 schools were found to have provided students with questions ahead of the test, corrected wrong answers during the exam or maintained bulletin boards that could have provided accurate responses. In El Paso, Texas, school districts were accused of pushing out low-performing students so their scores would not be included on key tests that determined federal funding and administrators’ bonuses. Similar cases have appeared in Houston and Los Angeles, in New Jersey and Virginia and in countless other districts nationwide. These instances of deceit signal blatant and obvious student data manipulation.

Subtle instances of cheating, however, are far more difficult to monitor, according to a 2003 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by economists Brian Jacob of the University of Michigan and Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago. Teaching to the test or intentionally lowering the passing rate, for example, are methods of gaming the system that should be considered cheating. Take the rule established by social scientist Donald Campbell in his influential 1976 paper “Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change” (PDF), which is often cited in discussions about high-stakes testing:

Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways. 

In other words, narrowing a curriculum by way of extensive test prep manipulates the testing conditions and invalidates the reliability of the yardstick as a reliable measure of student learning and educator competence.

It took the power of concerned and vocal citizens to overturn the unscrupulous behavior of Prohibition, and the same is true for the current test-driven educational culture.

Regrettably, these types of offenses have become inevitable because of the way schools, teachers and administrators are evaluated. The misbegotten use of student test scores to rate — or fire — teachers gives educators two options, both against their self-interest: Either they prep students for ill-conceived tests that they don’t believe in or they suffer the consequences of below-the-bar results. In order for a third option, cheating, to end, the evaluation system must be reformed.

School improprieties like these echo the 1920s Prohibition era of organized crime, in which mobsters, jazz musicians and thirsty Americans all benefited from the coordinated underground sale of bootleg liquor. The draconian constraints of the 18th Amendment produced a new industry of misbehavior that few people considered wrong. These practices changed only with the 21st Amendment’s repeal of those government mandates. It’s no surprise that the educators convicted in Atlanta were charged with racketeering.

It took the power of concerned and vocal citizens to overturn the unscrupulous behavior of Prohibition, and the same is true for the current test-driven educational culture. This spring, the opt-out movement among parents who oppose relentless exams has reached a fever pitch, especially in New York, after the state legislature approved a budget laced with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s severe testing requirements and teacher-evaluation rules that will maintain the tyranny of standardized metrics. Under this new system, student scores on high-stakes exams will account for 50 percent of a teacher’s overall rating. In response, about 156,000 students — half the children in some counties — so far have opted out of taking the English language arts exam in New York’s first week of testing. That figure, more than double last year’s total, does not even include New York City, Buffalo or Rochester, three of the largest districts in the state.

In a blog post that has become a source of intense discussion among opt-out activists, Glenn Geher, a psychology professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz and a parent, cautions that opting out of assessments will produce only limited results, because the state is likely to use whatever data it can gather, even an incomplete set, to evaluate schools. He urges constituents to move beyond opting out and to publicly voice no confidence in the politicians who are undermining the public education system.

No self-respecting educator can condone dishonesty under any circumstances, but the proliferation of cheating practices is happening concurrently with the augmented emphasis on high stakes testing. Public education is in crisis, and now is the time for parents, educators and concerned citizens to urge the repeal of legislative mandates that have created a desperate system in which deviance has become the new normal.

Mercer Hall is a teacher and co-founder of the American Society for Innovation Design in Education. He is a co-editor of the ASIDE blog, and his work is regularly featured in EdSurge, Edutopia, EdTech magazine and other forums.

Gina Sipley is a lifelong teacher who has been nationally recognized as a teacher of the future for her commitments to technology, sustainability and social justice. She writes about educational technology for EdSurge and Mic

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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