Standardized tests are championed as a way to ensure greater accountability in education. But for many teachers and school administrators, so-called "high-stakes" testing regimes also provide strong incentive to cheat and can reward dishonesty.
This trend is evident across the country. One recent example is an emerging case involving Arizona’s Sunnyside School District. According to a recent article, a math coach working for the district alleges that district teachers might have been, and be, helping first- and second-graders cheat on exams. According to the math coach, Jean Olson, some of the curiosities with regards to the test in question include a high incidence of erasures (i.e. wrong answers changed to correct answers; nearly half of the relevant 400 tests had erasures) and an unusual increase in the combined scores across seven classes over a nine week period.
The exams in question, known as “Standardized Bench Mark Assessments,” are given by school districts periodically in order to track student progress. Benchmark tests categorize results based on the same categories mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act—which include socio-economic standing and race—and these results are then often reported to the local or state districts in order to compare academic standings, percentiles, and general educational improvement.
After lodging her complaint, Olson was not rehired for the following school year. The article cited above reports on Olson’s hearing; however, according to the hearing officer, the “scope of his inquiry did not touch on whether cheating occurred” but rather the “technicalities” of Olson’s complaint. No teachers have been found guilty of cheating on the benchmark tests. In fact, there has been no formal charge brought against them. The only measure taken by the district to assess whether or not teachers had allowed and even encouraged cheating was to simply ask the teachers involved if they had encouraged cheating or changed students' answers. Unsurprisingly, the teachers said: no. This rigorous inquiry was grounds for the continuation of business-as-usual in Sunnyside School District.
Why might the school district be hesitant to launch a full-blown investigation of specious test results? Well, under current federal and state laws, improved test scores mean the allocation of more funding and resources, which gives educators incentive to pad scores. A current law in Arizona bases twenty percent of a superintendent’s salary and benefits package on student body performance. This is not uncommon. A similar law in Georgia is the source of huge controversy and is clearly linked to a major teacher cheating case in Atlanta. The Atlanta case is only one example of how this kind of law can lead to widespread corruption among teachers, administrators, and entire school districts. Poor school districts, populated by students who make the least progress, may be the most susceptible to teacher cheating scandals.
Strong metrics are important for reforming public education and standardized tests are one key metric. But the profit-for-progress structure creates a highly-competitive or even cut-throat approach to public education and incentivizes unethical behavior.
When teachers start to cheat, how much hope can we have for the ethics of our children?