Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Schools marred by testing scandals in 2011

This article in the USA Today covers the testing scandals that have bubbled up around the country:

By the time it's over, 2011 may well go down as the Year of the Test Scandal. From Waterbury to Atlanta to Asbury Park, N.J., public schools came under fire this year from media and public officials after investigations found evidence of test tampering by educators. The revelations came as schools, nearly a decade into the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era of test-based accountability, struggled to increase the percentage of students deemed "proficient" on state math and reading tests.

Among the most high-profile cases:

•In Atlanta, three years after the Journal-Constitution began probing unusual gains on test scores, a state investigation in July found that 178 teachers and principals had tampered with tests over the past decade. Last week, investigators said educators in 11 schools in southwest Georgia's Dougherty County also had cheated.

•In Washington, federal investigators are assisting a city probe of high erasure rates on math and reading exams after a USA TODAY investigation in March raised doubts about scores in more than 100 schools.

•In Camden, N.J., last month, school officials paid an $860,000 settlement to a former high school principal who claimed his superiors forced him to alter student test scores. In July, state officials ordered an investigation of 34 schools after an analysis of standardized test scores revealed high wrong-to-right erasure rates.

More suspicion

As in Atlanta and D.C., the revelations came to light after news organizations statistically analyzed improbably rising scores. This month, the New Jersey Department of Education reimbursed The Pressin Asbury Park, N.J., $40,290 for legal fees tied to the newspaper's investigation of school test tampering. The state said it had blacked out the names of schools in its "erasure analysis" reports over three years in anticipation of its own investigation.

Testing critics say the cases highlight test scores that seem too good to be true — and have emboldened other news media organizations to take a closer look.

"There is much more suspicion of unusual score gains and much more inclination to ask questions and dig," says Bob Schaffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, also known as FairTest.

…"It was a huge year for this," says Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington education think tank. He says cheating stories were "big news for a while, but I don't think it changed the direction of public policy."

Petrilli, who admits that the split between the scandal and its practical effects offers "some amount of cognitive dissonance," says lawmakers are still comfortable tying teacher pay to test scores. Looking beyond the bubble-sheet scandals, he says, they know that a new generation of computer-based tests will be harder to game. For one thing, teachers won't be able to take test papers home because there will be no papers — by 2014, most of the tests will be completed online. And the new tests will minimize the number of easy-to-erase multiple-choice questions.

"I think there's the sense that the accountability conversation has moved on," Petrilli says.

I think Petrilli is right that the practical effects haven't been major, but it's critically important that reformers get in front of this.  This is what I wrote in July as the Atlanta testing scandal came to light (


Defenders of the status quo will surely try to use this scandal to try to roll back any type of accountability system, but (as always) they'll be wrong.  Of course adults who are lousy at their jobs will try to cheat if they worry about being exposed and possibly losing their jobs – we reformers need to be VERY aware of this.  But the answer to this is to make sure that cheating is difficult – and the consequences for doing so severe.  For example, I think every teacher who cheated should be fired immediately and charges should be brought against Beverly Hall. 


I added this in a subsequent email (

I don't think I've ever written these words before, but Diane Ravitch has it exactly right: "To say that tests create cheating is wrong.  What creates cheating is people who cheat. If we spent as much time teaching kids as showing them the answer, they might have learned to read."

OK, OK, pick yourself up off the floor – Ravitch didn't really say this about the Atlanta scandal: she said it about a NYC scandal in 1999 (, before she went off on a crazed personal vendetta, lost her marbles, and became a spokesperson for the unions.  While it's hard to believe now, she really used to be top notch.

This is what RiShawn Biddle wrote at the time (

what education traditionalists are doing is simply trying to let teachers and principals off the hook for actually doing their job: Ensuring that every child gets a high-quality education, is proficient in reading and math, and has the skills they need to succeed in traditional and technical colleges, and in the working world. Certainly, teaching is a difficult career, and becoming even more challenging; there are plenty of teachers who are learning that they lack the subject-matter knowledge, instructional competence, entrepreneurial drive, zeal for improving the lives of children and empathy for kids of all backgrounds needed to be high-quality instructors.  There are also principals who now realize that they cannot handle the complexities of leading schools in an age in which using data to support the work of good-to-great teachers, get rid of laggards, and revamp school activities, is more critical than ever. They should leave the profession. Supporting efforts to cheat kids out of accurate and honest assessment of their achievement — and denying them a high-quality instruction — is unacceptable and should not be used by anyone to justify their opposition to reform.

Meanwhile the Atlanta cheating scandal, massive as it is, pales in comparison to the pervasive practices in American public education that deny far too many children the high-quality education they deserve.


Schools marred by testing scandals in 2011

By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY

Updated 9h 46m ago

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