The Atlanta Cheating Scandal, Part II: Standardized Madness

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As we discussed in the first installment of our three part series, this past April saw eight educators sentenced to hard time for their role in the Atlanta school district’s high profile cheating scandal. And as we pointed out then, nobody here would argue that those found guilty were somehow innocent.

But as we also pointed out in this first installment,a 2012 study in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that more than 200 districts nationwide produced irregularities in testing outcomes from which we can deduce that cheating of the kind we saw in Atlanta permeates this system far and wide.

Yet, the punitive focus on those educators found guilty on the big league charge of racketeering has been in lieu of what might have been a far more profound discussion. The educators who were led away from a Georgia courtroom in handcuffs last month are not exactly victims. That role is reserved for the students themselves. Still, these incarcerated educators represent the full scope of backroom dishonesty in the testing industry about as much as standardized assessment represents the full scope of student aptitude.

Just as standardized tests seem almost aggressively designed to tell us nothing about the practical, environmental, logistical, and sociological conditions whose improvement might actually help struggling students or schools, the resolution in Atlanta seems aggressively designed to tell use nothing about why more than three-quarters of all schools in the district were utterly flagrant about their willingness to cheat.

It isn’t sufficient to paint a portrait — accurate though it may be — of a superintendent and district gone mad. If there was something in the water in Atlanta, it coursed its way into the district through a national aqueduct choked by bad policies. From George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Barrack Obama’s Race to the Top, we have all kinds of inspiring names for policies that all essentially mean the same thing: Testing equals money.

It’s hard to argue that students are racing anywhere given how much more time they are now required to spend sitting in silence and completing government surveys about math, reading, and science. As far as not leaving any child behind . . . well students who don’t achieve Adequate Yearly Progress on standardized tests are actually and literally left behind a grade. So . . . yeah.

Let’s call this policy approach what it really is: the privatization of educational accountability.

The Almighty Diagnostic

So students take tests. They always have. What’s the big deal, right? You go to school. You take notes. You do your homework. You study for tests. That’s kind of the whole point, isn’t it?

Well sure, diagnostic testing of student capabilities makes perfect sense. Testing is a means to an end, an instrument that we use to target, refine, and individualize educational strategies, whether by district, school, or by pupil.

But what happens when testing is no longer the means. What happens when testing becomes the end itself?

We saw exactly what happens in Atlanta. And if we really look closer, we’re seeing it everywhere. The test is the goal, as opposed to the learning that it was once meant to foster. Thus, when administrators and educators like those in Atlanta behaved with such reckless indiscretion, we know that the goal of teaching never entered into their decision-making process. Pressure, fear, mob mentality, self-preservation. All of these things figured into their behavior. Learning and teaching had no part in this.

And when you consider just how much more time we spend taking tests, and when you consider the ever-rising financial stakes to which schools and students are beholden, it’s hard to argue that we aren’t depriving students of opportunities for enrichment, improvement, and perhaps even enjoyment.

A few decades back, President Bill Clinton’s Improving America’s Schools Act mandated that public school students take a total of six federally-proctored standardized tests over the course of a formal education. Every student took one math and one reading diagnostic test at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

That number has more than doubled since 2002’s passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Today, schools are only eligible to receive federal funding if their students participate in the requisite of 14 tests. This is just the bare minimum though. Some states and districts have embraced the testing trend whole hog, adopting any number of supplemental exams that might improve their chances of being rewarded with federal funding.

To wit, 25 states actually require a formal assessment test in kindergarten. That’s right, standardized “entry assessment” is mandatory for four-year-olds in half of American states.

Traditionally, kids aren’t supposed to hate school until adolescence but this does give them a nice jump on things.

How’s It Working Out?

So let’s assume for a minute that we’re okay with all of this. We agree that the goal of seeing how well our students, teachers, and schools are performing is worth the sacrifice of learning time; worth creating a classroom environment that, according to The Washington Post, stifles student creativity and innovation; worth requiring four-year-olds to sit down, shut up, and take tests when they should be fingerpainting.

As long as it’s actually happening, let’s assume that we’re okay with it provided that we’re getting something out of it. But are we?

An article by the Gale Learning Group points out that, generally speaking and not specific to the federal- and state-mandated tests running rampant over our schools at the moment, standardized tests are a poor measure of student achievement and do little to truly assess the capacity for creativity or critical thinking.

In other words, the value of standardized tests is predicated on the idea that all students can be comfortably classified within a diagnostic box, that all the future physicians, mechanical engineers, concert cellists, track stars, and stand-up comedians can be readily deemed capable or dismissed as inadequate in a few easy steps.

The inventor of the next Angry Birds (man, is that intellectual property worth a stupid amount or what?) could be relatively unprepared to demonstrate his or her true gifts on a multiple choice math test in the 3rd Grade. Surely we can’t believe that all the color, imagination, and weirdness that make young learners so inspiring can be measured this way.

Where our current educational policy is concerned, ineffective measurement would actually be the best case scenario. The worst case scenario would be a testing regime so imposing, disruptive, and misguided that it actually damages student performance.

Putting aside the funding and firing pressures that accompany NCLB’s performance measures — those which played a defining and paradoxically under-discussed role in the Atlanta cheating scandal — evidence is rather staggering to suggest that student performance in basic subjects has stagnated or declined in a pronounced way since NCLB gave the testing industry its massive seat at the table.

At the behest of NCLB itself, we are instructed to consider the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) the best means for evaluating the policy. According to The Washington Post, the NCLB does not fare well on the “nation’s report card.”

The NAEP reports that NCLB was an equal opportunity failure, producing a slowdown in the rate of educational progress among students of every demographic between grades four and eight. Score gaps were wider in 2012 than in either 1998 or 1990. Scores declined for students with disabilities and gains slowed for English language learners. High school student scores flattened across the boards, with Hispanic and black students experiencing the most persistent stagnation.

SAT, ACT, and PISA scores have also declined across all demographics over the last decade.

The Washington Post suggests that all of this is rather damning evidence about the consequences of misusing our classroom time and generally moving toward a culture of teaching to the test. Our students are losing aptitude, or more accurately, they are being deprived of it.

We could also readily speculate that our fixation on testing as the sole measure of educational performance has prevented us from confronting true systemic issues relating to poverty, racial inequality, resource shortage, funding disproportion, curriculum quality, and teacher qualifications. In the absence of any meaningful attention to these issues, and in the way that testing has substantially misdirected us from honestly approaching them, we are passively allowing their impact to intensify.

So Who’s Getting Something Out of This?

To answer that, you don’t have to look very far. That little testing booklet in your 3rd Grader’s hand is one tiny shred of a $2 Billion dollar industry, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. The Center reports that the Big Four of the educational testing industry — Pearson Education, ETS (Educational Testing Service), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill — have spent $20 Million in just the last five years to lobby for the continuation and intensification of the high stakes testing policies that have been so wildly ineffective over the last decade.

This obstruction may account for the fact that NCLB is now, according to The Washington Post, seven years overdue for Congressional reauthorization.

This is not a conspiratorial assumption. Pearson Education, the leading scorer of standardized tests at roughly 40 million students graded per year, has actually been an active participant in designing policies which consequently mandate the highly lucrative need for its services. Indeed, after gaining a foothold in the suddenly booming free marketplace of educational testing through NCLB, evidence suggests that Pearson is now the early frontrunner in the Race to the Top.

By providing active consultancy on Common Core Standards, Pearson helped author a policy that makes its curriculum and testing instruments that much more valuable. And according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, implementation of these policies will ultimately cost tax payers something between $1 and $8 billion. That’s a pretty broad range, but at any sum, much of this will make its way right back to Pearson and its industry counterparts.

So if you’re wondering how the results of standardized testing can be so generally negative for our students, so largely criticized by actual educators and yet so increasingly determinant in the state of our education, consider that those with the greatest influence on what happens in the classroom will never set foot inside of one.

Turning the Page

We’ve gotten ourselves into quite a tangle. More than just being a poor diagnostic of true student aptitude, the emphasis on standardized testing is actually leading to a measurable decline in across-the-boards student performance. And if we are unable to resist the growing influence of the testing industry on the educational policies that actually manifest in our classrooms, we have every reason to believe that these trends will only worsen.

In our next installment on the subject, we’ll offer a more optimistic discussion on what the future may hold in store. Even as high stakes testing attempts to lock students and teachers into a one-size-fits-all diagnostic box, access to information, opportunities for educational creativity, and alternatives to the current philosophy of testing have never been greater.

If the emphasis on high stakes testing is merely a consequence of a free market capitalist approach to education, then perhaps the solution to this problem lay in private enterprise as well. Realistically though, change will also require a very frank reexamination of our policy orientation at the highest levels of government and in the smallest local communities alike.

In Part III of this series, we will move beyond the embarrassing events in Atlanta, beyond the last decade of educational stagnation, to offer solutions that don’t just supplant high stakes testing but which also restore the opportunity for teachers to teach and for students to learn.

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