Atlanta Cheating Scandal: How the teacher incentives in high-stakes testing situations lead to cheating outbreaks.

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July 21 2011 12:57 PM

How High-Stakes Testing Led to the Atlanta Cheating Scandal

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

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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.

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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.

Dana Goldstein is a Brooklyn-based journalist, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and a Puffin Fellow at the Nation Institute. Follow her on Twitter.