What’s Really Scandalous About the Atlanta Schools Testing Scandal

Even if we eliminating the cheating, what remains is the dangerous misconception that testing is a proxy for teaching

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One of the biggest ironies of the Atlanta public schools testing scandal — in which 35 educators have been indicted on racketeering, theft and corruption charges for artificially inflating students’ test results — is that the faked scores prevented some schools from accessing three quarters of a million dollars in federal money to support struggling learners because they no longer qualified for help. The impact on individual children was devastating. One mother quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution described her fruitless search for reading support for her 9-year-old daughter, who was performing at the bottom of her reading group. The child’s phony test score showed improvement, so now, in high school, she reads only at a fifth-grade level.

Superintendent Erroll B. Davis has called for mandatory ethics training for all staff and increased security measures, such as “locked safe rooms, tighter chains of custody and clearer test protocols to prevent improprieties and tampering.” Schools with suspicious improvements will trigger automatic audits, he says, in order to “ensure that our assessments serve children, not adults.”

But this is a little like arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We need a deeper examination of the root causes of this disaster.

(MORE: Harvard Cheating Scandal: Is Academic Dishonesty on the Rise?)

Even if we eliminate the cheating, what remains is a broken system built on the dangerous misconception that testing is a proxy for actual teaching and learning. Somehow, along the path of good intentions, testing stopped being seen as a diagnostic tool to guide good instruction and became, instead, the instruction itself. It’s as if a patient were given a biopsy, learned she had cancer and was then told that no further medical treatment was necessary. If that didn’t sound quite right, we could just fire the doctor who ordered the test or scratch out the patient’s results and mark “cured” in the file.

This may seem like hyperbole, but it’s not too far from what’s happening in schools these days. Current state-mandated testing is far too narrowly focused and decontextualized to reflect the skills students need to learn in the 21st century. And the endless teaching to the test takes away from the time students could be learning how to construct a thoughtful argument, analyze a work of literature or grasp good citizenry.

George Madaus and Terrence Lee-St. John, in Defending Childhood, describe the myriad negative consequences of our test-taking mania: hours wasted taking tests to prepare for a test, children with stomach aches or sleep disturbances from test-taking anxiety, very young children deemed “not ready” to learn, ballooning administrative costs and demoralized teachers and parents, dramatic decreases in recess, physical education and music classes. The authors note that many standardized tests don’t even measure what they claim to be measuring, and even small changes in test format or wording can produce differences in results that have serious consequences for a child’s future prospects in school.

(MORE: In Defense of School Testing)

Equally concerning are all the important academic skills kids are denied when they spend precious school (and homework) hours bogged down in standardized-testing quicksand: the ability to think deliberatively about problems,  synthesize material across disciplines, struggle with complexity and uncertainty and appreciate the role of the arts in understanding the human condition. Is it any surprise that a whole school of teachers in Seattle recently refused to put up with this charade?

The great strength of the American education system — its ability to cultivate flexible, creative thinkers — has been lost in our testing madness. Maybe it’s time for a little American-style civil disobedience. What if all the kids in the U.S. answered the multiple-choice tests randomly or simply left the bubbles blank? What would we do, then, with a whole country whose educational system “needs improvement”? That would certainly be a teachable moment.

MORE: Why It’s Time to Get Rid of Standardized Tests