How High-Stakes Testing Led to the Atlanta Cheating Scandal

And the ones in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Houston …

What caused the explosion in school test cheating scandals?

On July 5, Georgia released the results of a state investigation into suspicious test scores in the Atlanta public schools. The state reported that 178 educators in 44 of the district’s 100 schools had facilitated cheating—often with the tacit knowledge and even approval of high-level administrators, including Atlanta’s award-winning former superintendent Beverly Hall, who conveniently parked herself in Hawaii for the investigation’s denouement.

In the wake of this appalling ethical lapse, which resulted in thousands of Atlanta children—largely poor and black—being told they had acquired crucial academic skills they actually lack, the national media and education policy elite have mostly rushed to defend high-stakes testing policies.

“The existence of cheating says nothing about the merits of testing,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan argued in the Washington Post this week, agreeing with such commentators as the editors of the New York Times, David Brooks, and influential school reform philanthropist and blogger Whitney Tilson. They all advocate blaming the adult cheaters while absolving the policies to which they respond.

The problem with this impulse to forgive No Child Left Behind and defend high-stakes testing is that the Atlanta case isn’t an isolated tragedy. A growing spate of evidence from around the country suggests that the most egregious practices in Atlanta—teachers purposefully seating struggling kids next to high-performing ones to encourage cheating on tests; educators gathering at after-school “erasure parties” to correct multiple-choice answer sheets—are part of a national, and indeed a historic trend, one that is bolstered by No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on pressuring educators to produce spectacular test results.

Case in point: An explosive and underappreciated investigative series in USA Today this March documented 1,610 cases of standardized test-score manipulation in six states and Washington, D.C., between 2009 and 2010. The newspaper would have almost certainly found more cheating, but it zeroed in on only the most suspicious test-score leaps: those that statisticians said were about as likely to be legitimate as it would be to buy a winning Powerball ticket.

In many cases uncovered by USA Today, administrators were hesitant to investigate fishy test results, even when scores rose implausibly rapidly—say, from 5 percent math proficiency to 91 percent proficiency over the course of three years, as occurred in one Gainesville, Fla., elementary school. That’s because under No Child Left Behind—which was enacted in 2001 and requires that every third- through eighth-grader be tested annually in reading and math—schools face sanctions if scores don’t improve, including public shaming through being labeled as “failing.”

In Washington, D.C., a father became suspicious of his daughter’s high math test scores, as the girl couldn’t perform basic arithmetic functions. One of then-chancellor Michelle Rhee’s favorite principals, Wayne Ryan of the Noyes Education Complex, responded by banning that parent from setting foot on campus. All in all, more than half of D.C. elementary schools, including Noyes, showed evidence of adult tampering with students’ standardized test answer sheets under Rhee’s administration, which paid principals and teachers up to $12,000 in annual bonuses for raising test scores. Wayne Ryan has since resigned in disgrace.

And adult cheating doesn’t just happen at traditional district public schools: Charter schools in South Los Angeles and Tampa, Fla., have been implicated in similar test-manipulation scandals in recent years.

Sadly, there’s nothing new about this kind of egregious institutionalized cheating, which tends to peak during periods when high-stakes standardized tests are popular.

In the late 1980s, states began to experiment with offering schools financial awards for improving test scores. As the local media filled with optimistic stories about rising scores, a West Virginia doctor named John Cannell wondered why so many of his teenage patients complained of feeling lost at school. In 1988, Cannell published a classic research paper (PDF) reporting that most school districts in all 50 states boasted average test scores higher than their state’s average—a statistical impossibility if the districts had been honest about performance. In his indispensible 2008 book Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, Harvard psychometrician Daniel Koretz writes, “This phenomenon quickly became known as the ‘Lake Wobegon effect,’ after Garrison Keillor’s mythical town where ‘all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.’ “

A few years later, Houston’s superintendent, Rod Paige, gained fame as the force behind the “Texas Miracle,” a period of rapidly rising test scores and high school graduation rates. Paige offered teachers and principals merit pay attached to such metrics. In 2003, it was discovered that widespread cheating had taken place throughout the city, with failing students encouraged to stay home on test days.  In 1999 in New York City, 32 schools, dozens of teachers, and two principals were embroiled in a similar scandal.

Paige, meanwhile, went on to become George W. Bush’s first education secretary, and one of the architects of No Child Left Behind.

When it comes to the K-12 education system, we’re living in an age of brutal optimism about testing. Low test scores tell us nothing about a child, we’d like to think, but nearly everything about his school and teachers. Every child in America, after all, is supposed to reach “proficiency” in reading and math by spring 2014, at least according to No Child Left Behind. If any individual child fails, it won’t be because he is disabled, poor, hungry, homeless, can’t understand English, or maybe just isn’t that smart, but because he’s been failed by “the system”—those same bad-apple teachers and principals who cheat, or who are just too damn incompetent or lazy to teach their students.

We know that great teachers can and do improve their students’ test scores. And bad apples certainly do exist, and must be rooted out. But we have to acknowledge that their shenanigans have been incentivized by federal and state education policies, which more and more reward teachers and schools for producing high test scores—not knowledgeable, well-adjusted children. The sad thing is, incentives to cheat will only increase if the Obama administration gets its way: Its education programs, such as Race to the Top, ask states to create new standardized assessments for the full range of grades and subjects, and to tie teacher and principal evaluation and pay to students’ test scores.

Those are exactly the kinds of policies that adult cheaters in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and around the country have responded to—and you can bet that, even if budget-cutting districts find a way to widely implement security protections like computer-proctored exams,  the bad guys will find ways to manipulate them, too.

When laws incentivize bad behavior, it’s a good time to reconsider public policy, not to double down on it. In a way, Arne Duncan and the New York Times are right: The problem isn’t the tests. But the problem is the carrots and sticks tied to them, which put too much emphasis on judging teachers and schools, and not enough on offering kids better instruction.