Across the U.S., the politically mandated misuse of standardized tests is damaging public schools and the children they serve. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s investigation of suspicious test scores around the nation is just the latest example. Experts may debate the methodology, but there is no question that cheating on standardized exams is widespread. In just the past three academic years, FairTest has documented confirmed cases of test score manipulation in 33 states plus the District of Columbia.
These scandals are the predictable result of over-reliance on test scores. As the renowned social scientist Donald Campbell concluded more than 30 years ago, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Campbell continued, “[W]hen 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.”
Testing experts have long recognized this problem. Their professional standards for educational assessment warn against relying on tests as the sole or primary factor to make high-stakes decisions.
Enhanced test security may reduce the number of reported problems. A real solution, however, requires a comprehensive overhaul of federal, state and local testing requirements. President Barack Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and many governors regularly issue high-sounding statements about assessment reform. At the same time, the federal government is adding incentives for cheating by ratcheting up the emphasis on standardized exam scores.
Many state officials are going along to win federal funds. Initiatives such as Race to the Top and the criteria for waivers from No Child Left Behind escalate the role of annual high-stakes annual testing. New requirements to assess teachers based on their students’ scores, in particular, virtually guarantee even more cheating will take place.
These policies contradict the findings and recommendations of Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education, released last year by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science. That study’s distinguished panel of experts concluded that high-stakes testing has not improved educational quality
Cracking down on cheating is necessary but far from sufficient. The reports by the Georgia Office of Special Investigators should be a national model of “best practices” for detecting and responding to testing irregularities. Unfortunately, educational bureaucrats may have vested interests in protecting current policies and personnel.
Comprehensive reviews by independent law enforcement professionals are often necessary. Combined with the full range of forensic detection tools — including analyses for high numbers of erasures, unusual score gains and patterns of similar responses — this approach has proved most likely to root out the truth.
More policing and better after-the-fact investigations will not, however, solve the many problems caused by the misuse of standardized exam scores. Instead, high-stakes testing requirements must end. They cheat students out of a high-quality education and cheat the public out of accurate information about school quality.
Robert Schaeffer is public education director for FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing.
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