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Thompson: Atlanta Is Still Just the Tip of the Testing Icebergs

Once again, the convictions of the eleven surviving educators for their role in Atlanta's infamous cheating scandal provides a "teachable moment" in regard to the inherent harm of high stakes testing. The Guardian's Max Blau, in Why the Atlanta Cheating Scandal Failed to Bring National Reform, cites Fair Test's Bob Schaeffer who says, “Atlanta is the tip of the iceberg. ... Cheating is a predictable outcome of what happens when public policy puts too much pressure on test scores.”

During the NCLB era, other cheating scandals have occurred in Baltimore, Camden, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Houston, El Paso, Norfolk, Virginia and, yes, in Michelle Rhee's Washington D.C. As Schaeffer explained to the Christian Science Monitor's Stacy Teichner Khadaroo, in Atlanta Teacher Conviction: Do Standardized Tests Pressure Foster Cheating?, today's testing “creates a climate in school where you have to boost scores by hook or by crook.”

Khodaroo also cites Harvard's Daniel Koretz who explains why high stakes testing reveals just the tips of other dangerous icebergs. Koretz describes “shortcuts” that educators are encouraged to take, such as teaching to the “'power standards' – the types of items most commonly tested." He says that "states now routinely offer teachers old test items to use for test prep," even though that practice was frowned upon in the 1980s.

“'Clearly cheating is unethical, but at what point does this other stuff become unethical?'” Koretz says.

In my experience, these more subtle means of manipulating metrics are the most pervasive and thus the most destructive.

In my two decades of teaching and working with my school system's data, I have never witnessed cheating or anything that could be clearly defined as unethical. Although we scrupulously followed the NCLB regulations, those regulations allowed for an unbelievable array of loopholes regarding students who could be excluded from school level accountability reports (which were the metrics that were widely read and thus the most important.) And, few things are easier than using NCLB loopholes to reduce absenteeism and increase graduation rates. Although I have never seen outright cheating, neither would I ever again trust data that is based on NCLB metrics. 

My biggest complaint about the inherent damage done by high stakes testing involves an issue where it is impossible to even articulate an ethical position. Surely we can all agree that it is wrong to focus unflinchingly on students' weaknesses and on remediation, while ignoring their strengths and failing to challenge inner city kids to meet real standards of learning. But, if teachers don't agree to distort and cheapen instruction by concentrating on the reteaching of End of Instruction Tests to students who failed them the first time, an unconscionable number of low-skilled students will be denied a high school diploma. So, we all participate in education malpractice to a greater or lesser extent. 

Would inner city educators be more morally upright if we remained true to our values, taught our classes in the engaging ways that most benefitted our students who were on track for graduation, hugged our kids as they received their diplomas, and ignored the huge number of our other students who would end up on the streets without a degree?

And, that brings me back to Blau's question of why American schools are still oppressed by the test, sort, and punish policies imposed by top-down reform. Why have we not rejected the bubble-in accountability that has corrupted our schools in so many outrageous, as well as subtle ways?  Blau hints at the answer when describing reformers' reactions to both their pet, "value-added" theories for teacher evaluations and their opposition to the grassroots Opt Out movement.

As educators, students, and parents unite in opposition to high-stakes tests, accountability-driven reformers must see the collapse of their vision of school improvement. They must recognize the great harm that has been done by test-driven accountability, especially to the poor children of color who they most sought to help, but they (rightly) fear that two their decades of work is slipping away.  

Now, even more than four years ago when the cheating was revealed, reformers rush to answer each complaint about testing with a chorus of soundbites. They, blame everyone but the testing mania. I don't know if desperate reformers believe their spin or not. I fear that their nonstop denials that high stakes testing is inherently destructive is just the tip of yet another iceberg. The latest public relations response by true believers in testing to the Atlanta convictions is just the tip of the massive and mendacious edu-political campaign known as corporate reform. - JT(@drjohnthompson)  


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