Cheating at Corruption
There is quite a bit of concern over recent scandals involving school- and teacher-driven cheating on standardized tests:
The extent of the top-down malfeasance under Beverly Hall may be unprecedented, but as I report in this Slate piece, there is reason to believe that policies tying adult incentives to children’s test scores have resulted in a nationwide uptick in cheating. An investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution found 196 school districts across the country with suspicious test score gains similar to the ones demonstrated in Atlanta, which statisticians said had only a one in 1 billion likelihood of being legitimate. A 2011 study by USA Today of test scores from just six states found 1,610 instances in which gains were as likely to be authentic as you are likely to buy a winning Powerball ticket. Absent independent, local investigations of suspected wrongdoing—which are rarely conducted—we simply cannot know the full extent of the cheating, which makes it difficult to assess whether the United States ought to continue down the road of tying teacher and administrator pay and job security to kids’ standardized test scores.
There seems to be some focus here on the shock that teachers and schools are cheating. We hold teachers to a high standard (while we hold ourselves to low standard in terms of how we treat them), and cannot imagine that so many would do something so terrible as to cheat.
Furthermore, the assumption seems to be that these teachers are cheating to save their own asses, and the cheating is harming their students, using them as tools for selfish gain. Thus the question about tying pay and job security to testing, as if the testing itself were not at all in question.
And sure enough, there are cheaters, no question. There will always be people in any group who are more noble and more base. As with everyone else, there is a spectrum—some will hold to their principles no matter what, some will violate the rules for no reason, and the vast majority lie somewhere in between, and where we lie along this spectrum is influenced by our conditions. I covered this before in a post from eight years ago: as conditions intensify, more of us reach the conditions of our “price,” our necessary level of incentive to break the rules. More of us are primed to do wrong.
This is one reason why tenure is a good thing: it releases the pressure, the fear of harm, and thus dissipates the conditions that prime us to do the wrong things.
Take away tenure, tell teachers that they will lose their jobs if their students don’t perform to a standard, and those conditions intensify, and more teachers manipulate their environment to work the system.
One element that will further prime us to break the rules is the availability and strength of rationalizations. The easier and more convincingly we can come up with excuses for defying a system, the more we will do so.
Tying school funding to standardized testing offers excellent excuses. Teachers can very easily look at that system and believe utterly that it is arbitrary and meaningless, and therefore violating its rules is not an actual wrong, just a technical one.
They know that standardized testing is not a true measure of education. They know that it is a political tool, designed to win votes. They know that robbing a school or a district of funding because of it is in itself a wrong. (In fact, one could argue that the schools with the worst results need more funds, not less.) They know that teaching to the test, which standardized testing favors, can actually be detrimental to students. They understand that the quality of education is not something that can be so easily measured, and pretending to do so can emphasize the wrong things and de-emphasize the good.
It is amazingly easy to convince oneself that cheating on this system is actually a moral good.
And here is where immoral and moral behavior blend: most of these rationalizations are in fact correct; the system is indeed useless and corrupt in itself; and teachers face a crisis where they must choose between following a bad system and giving their students the best they can manage.
Yes, some teachers cheat because they fear losing their jobs. But many honestly cheat—yes, that is very possible to do—to best serve their students.
They are faced with the knowledge that losing funds for this school may indeed harm the students in their care, students these teachers have committed themselves, often times selflessly, to protect and nurture.
This is not helped by the fact that teachers know that their children can be further disadvantaged when other schools cheat, and they know that cheating is inevitable.
Imagine, for example, that the government decided that health care for children be parceled out on the basis of the child passing a test that parents could easily help their children cheat on. The children pass, and they get medical attention. They fail, and they get nothing when they fall ill. And it is apparent that there is little connection between the test and worthiness of medical attention.
You think most parents will not cheat? Of course they will. You’re practically forcing them to. You are creating a system which encourages cheating, rewards it—even makes it necessary if one cares for one’s children.
Now, you may think that the analogy of medical care based on an arbitrary test is absurd—but have you considered that it is not because the analogy is incorrect, but because standardized testing as well as tying it to funding is equally absurd?
The fault, in fact, lays not in the cheaters, but in the selfishly-motivated manipulators who created the unhealthy system in the first place.
Strange how that fact is far less discussed, as if standardized testing should not be questioned.
Allow me to segue into a related point: evaluation.
I got my graduate degree in TESOL at one of the best-rated schools for that department, and yet there was a glaring omission in that program: testing and scoring. I simply cannot remember many lessons or book chapters which trained us how to create testing materials and evaluate student progress. There was certainly no course on the topic; the courses we did have focused more on teaching and remained mostly silent on evaluation.
There may have been a reason for that: like teaching itself, evaluation is not a straightforward thing. There is no “correct” method. It is, as the old saying goes, more art than science.
Grading demands the application of a numerical value to performance—but how do you weigh the performance? This question invokes issues from the fundamental to the specific.
First of all, what is the purpose of education? To teach students skills to find and perform well at jobs, or to enrich their lives at a more abstract level? Do they need specific skills, or should we outfit them with general tools which can be adjusted to adapt to any situation? Some even question whether we should be teaching them critical thinking skills at all. The answers to these questions fundamentally alter how evaluation should be performed, and yet we cannot even agree on these basic goals.
Should students be rated on an absolute scale, or in relation to each other, or even based upon personal progress? If absolute, who sets the standard, and what is it based upon? If in relation to others, then in relation to what group—the immediate class, the entire school, the state, or a national average? Or should students be graded on how much they achieve relative to where they started?
In any one topic, how should different elements be rated? Is a student rewarded for simple, mechanical memorization skills, or the ability to analyze and understand, to perceive the principles behind something and apply those so as to come to a creative result? Should we prize narrow technical competence in a skill, or creative approaches? If a combination, the how to weigh the value of each?
Upon serious and objective consideration of all of these facts and many, many more, it is easy to see that evaluation is a deeply complex and irreducible process. Applying standardized testing to education is like trying to rate literature by counting vowels.
The answer to standardized testing “scandals” is to address the greater problems, and the first step to that is to recognize standardized testing for the abject failure that it is, to trash it and to start over again. This time, leave the politicians out of it, as well as monetary incentives, and make an honest attempt to address the problem objectively and systematically.
A good start at such a project would be to first establish why we have education in the first place, and come to a firm decision about what education is supposed to be for. From there, we can move towards more specific elements and work our way through the system. There will never be universal agreement, but at least if we can make the standards clear, we have some hope of doing a better job.