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Ditch Testing: Lessons from the Cheating Scandal in Atlanta (Part 1)

14 July 2011 44,820 11 Comments

Ditch Testing: Lessons from the Cheating Scandal in Atlanta (Part 1)

Last week a state investigation in Georgia confirmed massive cheating in Atlanta Public Schools. A total of 178 educators in 44 elementary and middle schools in the district were named in the report as participants in cheating on the state’s standardized test mandated by NCLB. This is not the first and certainly won’t be the last case of corruption in the nation’s schools. There are ongoing investigations in many other locales, most recently, Philadelphia. While laying blame on these educators, we must understand the root cause of cheating is not the bad nature of these “cheaters.” But rather it is the unreasonable policy, its unrealistic expectations, and blind faith in test scores as an indicator of education quality. This scandal should serve as a wake-up call to proponents of test-driven reform policies: it’s time to abandon high stakes testing in our schools. Decades of high-stakes testing has not brought improvement but has corrupted our schools. The cost is too high.  However, the proponents are not reflecting. They try to minimize the problem and reduce cheating to a technical instead of policy issue, suggesting technical fixes.

I am writing a series of posts on this issue. Here you have the first:

What was Secretary Duncan’s true feeling about the cheating scandal in Atlanta?

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he was “stunned” by the cheating scandal in Atlanta Public Schools revealed last week. Given that English is my second language and I wanted to make sure I do not misunderstand the Secretary’s feelings about one of the largest scandals in U.S. education, I went to and found the following definitions of “stun:”

  • 1. to deprive of consciousness or strength by or as if by a blow, fall, etc.
  • 2. to astonish; astound; amaze.
  • 3. to shock; overwhelm

So what was Mr. Duncan’s feeling? In the spirit of test-based education, this makes a great item on the next standardized test for our children:

What was Secretary Duncan’s true feeling about cheating in Atlanta?

  • A. He was deprived of consciousness or strength
  • B. He was astonished, astounded, and amazed
  • C. He was shocked and overwhelmed
  • D. All of the above

Using my well-honed testing taking skill developed in China, I went at the task and eliminated “B” and “C” first because both contain the element of “surprise” in that he was surprised to find out there were such massive cheating going on in schools. This cannot be true or I refuse to believe it is true because as Secretary of Education, Mr. Duncan must have read the numerous reports of suspected and confirmed cheating incidents in the nation’s schools, including but not limited to places such as Boston, Baltimore, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Chicago, where he served as its education chief. He must have read this USA Today report that investigated possible cheating in DC and 6 states and found:

1,610 examples of anomalies in which public school classes — a school’s entire fifth grade, for example — boasted what analysts regard as statistically rare, perhaps suspect, gains on state tests. Such anomalies surfaced in Washington, D.C., and each of the states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Ohio.

He must have also read Sharon Nichols and David Berliner’s book Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools, which documents numerous cases and forms of cheating in schools as a result of high stakes testing by teachers, students, and state education officials. And thus he should know “Campbell’s Law” the authors illustrated in the book:

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 was intended to monitor.

Moreover, days before the news broke out, he sent out a letter to all chief state school officers reminding them of the importance of data integrity and reminded them that “even the hint of testing irregularities and misconduct in the test administration process could call into question school reform efforts and undermine the State accountability systems that you have painstakingly built over the past decade.”

Hence, Mr. Duncan cannot and should not be surprised.

“A” is the correct answer, I think, because judging from what said in the interview, he certainly appears that he had no idea what he was talking about. He first said this was an isolated case, and then said it was systemic. He first suggested this is a problem that is easy to fix with better test security and then called it a culture issue, which is much more difficult to fix. He ignores numerous reports of widespread cheating in the nation’s schools and insists that testing equals good measures of education. Apparently he was deprived of consciousness.

Or maybe it is D, “all of the above.” Mr. Duncan could or could choose to be ignorant of the reality of education in the U.S., the damages of testing-driven reform policies, sound research that shows the ineffectiveness of testing in improving education, and the real reasons behind the achievement gap so he can be genuinely surprised. If so, I hope he the APS case will help him understand that his love for high-stakes testing will not improve education but to cause more damages (by the way, Race to the Top and the proposed ESEA blueprint by the current administration just made the stakes even higher by linking test scores with teacher evaluation and thus their income).

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. In the aftermath of the APS cheating scandal, Secretary Duncan showed no hint of reflection and refuted any suggestion that the cheating may be caused by the tremendous pressure placed on educators by high stakes testing. Instead, he suggested:

There are clear, not expensive security measures that you take to make sure things have integrity. Look at our guidance. Should Atlanta do those things? They should have done them yesterday. And they should do them today. It’s pretty easy. The technical fix is easy.

I actually went to the U.S. Department of Education’s website to look for the guidance Mr. Duncan mentioned. After some search I located a document called Standards and Assessments Peer Review Guidance: Information and Examples for Meeting Requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which is listed in another document called Significant Guidance Documents dated June 27, 2011. I was unable to find any other “guidance” document about assessment security. This 77-page document aims to “provide States with information to prepare for the Department’s peer review of compliance with the State assessment systems requirements under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended, and implementing regulations.”  “Test security measures” was mentioned, but only in relation to requirement of state to develop them. I was unable to find “clear, not expensive security measures” as suggested by Mr. Duncan. Perhaps I was looking at the wrong place.

What the Secretary is trying to do is to minimize the scale of the problem and reduce a policy and cultural problem to a technical one that he wants to believe can be solved easily and cheaply. But unfortunately, that is not true.

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

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  • The week in blogs « School Board News said:

    […] see Joanne Jacobs on “Why Math Tutors Prosper,” Yong Zhao’s provocative call to “Ditch Testing” in light of the Atlanta cheating furor, and Charlotte Williams of the Learning First Alliance on […]

  • Alex Trenton said:

    Basic test security procedures aside, how about firing the lot and trying to hire some honest teachers and principals?

  • The Best Posts & Articles About The Atlanta Testing Scandal | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day... said:

    […] Ditch Testing: Lessons from the Cheating Scandal in Atlanta (Part 1) is from Yong Zhao. […]

  • Jesse Turner said:

    Thank you Dr. Zhao for putting a little satire on this issue. A decade later, and nearly one trillion dollars spent building this fraud called NCLB what do we have? We have cheaters, fraud, and a Secretary of Education whose training was immersed in the very culture of cheating and fraud. Our nation’s children, parents, teachers, and taxpayers deserved better than lies. Silence and apathy are not acceptable, and neither is a Secretary of Education who can’t see the writing on the wall children are more than test scores.
    In two weeks time I will be marching in the Save Our Schools March in DC,

  • Easy solutions in public schools aren’t necessary good solutions said:

    […] I think everyone should read through Yong Zhao’s series called, “Ditch Testing.” A local superintendent, David Britten, today has a blog entry about ACT and it’s college […]

  • Bill Peterson said:

    “Accountability without excuse” seems to be the mantra of the high stakes test supporters. In other words the test results of the students are absolutely the result of actions by the teachers, and teachers should be fired if student results are inappropriate. Therefore, One would imagine that these same folks would demand the same “accountability without excuse” to be applied to themselves. This being the case, can we look forward to the firing of the head of public schools for the State of Georgia, and the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan?

  • Cheating Scandals Intensify Focus on Test Pressures | said:

    […] at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, used the Atlanta situation as a jumping-off point for a five-part series in his blog Zhao Learning. The United States should “ditch testing,” he […]

  • Cheating Scandals Intensify Focus on Test Pressures » said:

    […] at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, used the Atlanta situation as a jumping-off point for a five-part series in his blog Zhao Learning. The United States should “ditch testing,” he […]

  • New questions on the Common Core said:

    […] Why are we connecting teacher evaluation to test scores? Moreover, haven’t we seen plenty of cases of cheating on standardized testing in our schools under NCLB? Isn’t there enough evidence of states manipulating data and cut […]

  • What do school exams and phone hacking have in common? | IOE London blog said:

    […] Zhao, from the University of Oregon, went so far as to argue that the Atlanta scandal made the case for ditching testing. But there are more subtle and thoughtful responses about the relationship between incentives and […]

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