10/07/2014 10:36 am ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

Atlanta Cheating Scandal and the Failure of Standardized Testing


Last week saw the start of a trial for a number of teachers and administrators in the Atlanta area who are accused of altering student tests to improve scores. While this is clearly a disturbing accusation the most troubling aspect of this case is the government regulations that precipitated the cheating.

Given the importance of a good education, it comes as no surprise that there is always a push for improving the nation's educational system. Unfortunately all too often the politicians in charge of these improvements have championed ideas that may meet the needs of their free market ideology but do nothing to actually improve education. This can be seen in the results of the charter school movement. It can be seen in the many attempts to remove tenure protections. And it can be seen in the efforts to make vouchers a key tenant of reform.

But perhaps the single biggest failure of the education reform movement is the obsession with high-stakes testing that determines how much money a school gets, which teachers get to keep their increasingly vitiated jobs, and what colleges children can attend.

This infatuation with boiling years worth of an education down to one winner take all test costs schools $1.7 billion per year or as much as $1,000 per pupil in the test-heavy grades. These same students also lose 20 to 40 minutes of instruction time per day practicing and taking standardized tests. In addition to the in school testing parents also spend over $2.5 billion per year attempting to improve their children's ACT and SAT scores.

Given all of the time and money being poured into testing it should come as no surprise that the
new NEA president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, has made standardized testing a core part of her agenda.

The problem is that for many educators this over-emphasis on testing has a number of unintended consequences above and beyond the ever increasing costs and intrusion on instruction time. For example, some teachers find that teaching to the test stifles the creativity that many feel is important to improving the education process. Instead of using tests to measure what students understand and what they need further work on to increase outcomes for all students, top politicians pushing these test-centric reform efforts, like George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have turned them into tools to determine school funding and teacher effectiveness.

While many corporations in the US are looking for ways to expand creativity and give their employees greater flexibility to excel at their jobs, politicians have taken the opposite approach and micromanaged educators jobs to the point of becoming automatons. This neutering has lead to a 20 year low in morale and a record high in the attrition rate. Obviously neither of these is good for educational outcomes.

Beyond that the tests themselves have been found to be discriminatory, they haven't been shown to improve student achievement, and they aren't a part of Finland"s education system that routinely ranks as one of the world's best.

It should also be noted that a student's GPA is a better predictor of college success than SAT scores. This suggests that when some of the government regulations and corporate intrusions are removed, teachers are more than capable of providing an education that prepares students for the next step. Perhaps being able to tailor the learning process to fit a select group of students is a better method than the top-down, one-size-fits-all testing oligarchy.

Given the obvious deficiencies in the current system and the magnitude of the outcomes is anyone surprised that teachers across the country have turned to nefarious methods to improve the test scores for their district? Good teachers have been shown to be an important cog in the education process however more important is a child's socio-economic status. For many educators, the proposition of their school closing because the students they teach have an inherent disadvantage is a dire situation. Cheating, however undesirable, becomes a rational solution to an imperfect system.

Of course public school teachers are hardly the only ones to resort to such tactics. Charter schools have seen their fair share of cheating scandals as well. Professional athletes across a multitude of sports have cheated to improve their chances of success. Politicians have certainly operated outside of the law with a number of quid pro quo agreements. Corporate heads have cooked the books to artificially increase profits. Bankers helped cause the great recession by essentially cheating the system to enrich themselves.

The reality is the higher the stakes, the more likely humans are to look for ways to enhance their odds of success. While assessing students acuity in math, reading, writing, and science has value, turning this teaching tool into a free-market competition among the adults clearly isn't achieving the desired results. What should be abundantly clear at this point is when put to the test high stakes standardized testing has failed.