The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has another explosive story out this week about possible cheating on standardized tests. This time, the newspaper looked at suspicious circumstances in nearly 70,000 schools across the country and found “red flags” in about 200 districts, an analysis that “suggests a broad betrayal of schoolchildren across the nation,” the newspaper said.
The newspaper looked for schools where test-scores had abnormally large leaps or drops from year to year. In Atlanta, an earlier investigation led the district to put more than 100 educators on paid administrative leave, and it is currently moving to fire some of them. (Four have already resigned rather than go through with a hearing.) This latest series of reports may lead to a similar fallout in other states and districts. More interesting to watch, however, will be whether the AJC investigation and another one published last year by USA Today in partnership with The Hechinger Report will have an impact on state and federal education policy.
The investigations into cheating have added fuel to the debate over standardized testing, which has become a big part of how states rate, reward and sanction schools and, increasingly, individual teachers and principals. The Obama administration has called for a move away from an over-reliance on standardized testing and the “teaching to the test” that critics say is an inevitable result. Yet the federal government is, at the same time, putting pressure on states to rate teachers based on student growth—often measured using tests—through several different programs, including the Race to the Top competition and the School Improvement Grant program, which have funneled billions of federal dollars to states and districts. In some cases, the accountability push has driven states to create even more high-stakes tests.
Is an obsession with accountability based on standardized tests causing the rash of cheating? Or is the cheating evidence that the public education system is rife with bad apples who need to be identified and removed from the classroom—a task the new accountability systems are meant to aid in? Are there any reliable, comparable and affordable alternatives for measuring schools’ performance—something many educators and policymakers agree is important—other than standardized tests?
In the short term, the cheating scandals—which appear now to be more widespread than some thought—may lead to a shakeup in district staff. In the long term, we’ll be watching to see if they lead to a shakeup in policy.