The Standardised Testing Racket

It is NAPLAN test week next month in Australia. It is also testing season in the United States which has coincided, once again, with another round of cheating scandals highlighted by the dramatic indictment of one of the nation’s top school superintendents on racketeering charges for cheating on test scores.

Testing is now a national obsession in the US. First used to assess students, test scores are now used to assess teachers, principals and superintendents, as well as schools, districts and even states. Governments are developing new tests in grades and subjects not currently covered by state tests. Some states and school districts are looking at introducing tests for all subjects, including choir and gym.

Teacher-evaluation and payment schemes have been put in place in numerous cities and states that are heavily weighted by student standardized-test scores. Big bonuses are won based on test scores, and jobs are lost. Schools are lauded or closed and replaced by charter schools according to their test scores.

There can be little wonder in this environment that schools and teachers become focused on test scores rather than the actual learning of students. As the Pulitzer-prize winning columnist, Eugene Robinson, wrote in the Washington Post recently, the US obsession with testing has become a “racket”.

It is time to acknowledge that the fashionable theory of school reform — requiring that pay and job security for teachers, principals and administrators depend on their students’ standardized test scores — is at best a well-intentioned mistake, and at worst nothing but a racket.

This was highlighted by the dramatic indictment last month of the former high-flying superintendent of the Atlanta public school district, Dr. Beverly Hall, on racketeering charges. Hall was charged, along with 34 other school administrators, principals and teachers, for cheating and manipulating test scores in Atlanta schools.

Atlanta’s testing scandal was so broad and deep that a grand jury indicted Hall and other administrators and educators under a law that had been used to prosecute members of the Gambino family – a notorious Mafia crime syndicate. Yes, that’s right – the cheating was so widespread that officials resorted to laws used to pursue the Mafia! Prosecutors in Atlanta allege that Hall had run a “corrupt” organization that used test scores to financially reward and punish teachers.

In 2009, Dr. Hall, was named as National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators for increasing student test score results in Atlanta. She was lauded for turning the system “into a model of urban school reform.” The improvements proved to be phony, just as they have in many other school districts in the US – remember the phony increase in test scores in New York City under Schools Chancellor Joel Klein before he left to work for Rupert Murdoch.

The indictment alleges that Dr. Hall and the others cheated on state exams, hid the cheating, and retaliated against whistleblowers who tried to expose it. Many of those who were charged, including Dr. Hall, received hundreds of thousands of dollars in performance bonuses that were based on the fraudulent scores. Dr. Hall alone received more than $500,000 in performance bonuses.

According to a teacher who turned state’s witness the cheating had been going on in her school at least since 2004 and was overseen by the principal, who even wore gloves so as not to leave her fingerprints on the answer sheets that were being changed. She told the New York Times “the cheating had been going on so long…. we considered it part of our jobs.”

She said teachers were under constant pressure from principals who feared they would be fired if they did not meet the testing targets set by the superintendent. Dr. Hall gave principals three years to meet their testing goals. Few did, and in her decade as superintendent, she replaced 90 per cent of the principals.

As the New York Times noted, cheating “is not just an Atlanta problem.” The national obsession with test results has produced a plague of cheating scandals across the US. Cheating has increased as standardized testing has become a primary means of evaluating teachers, principals and schools.

In El Paso, a superintendent went to prison recently after removing low-performing children from classes to improve the district’s test scores. In Ohio, state officials are investigating whether several urban districts intentionally listed low-performing students as having withdrawn even though they were still in school.

A survey recently published by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, found incidents of test cheating in 37 states and Washington DC in the last four years. It documented 50 ways in which schools have manipulated their test score results. These include changing answers on test sheets, excluding low-achieving students from enrolling and pushing out low-scoring students, reporting low achieving students as having been absent on testing day.

These and other strategies are widespread across the United States according to FairTest Public Education Director Bob Schaeffer. “These corrupt practices are inevitable consequences of the politically mandated overuse and misuse of high-stakes exams”, he said in releasing the survey.

Another columnist at the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss, wrote in her Answer Sheet blog that “these cheating scandals have been a result of test-obsessed school reform.” She said that “the obsession with test scores turned schools into test-prep factories and narrowed curricula so teachers could concentrate on the subjects that are tested.” Now policy makers have decided that all subjects needed standardized tests so teachers could be evaluated by the scores, and so the subjects and grades that are tested have expanded.

Even Bill Gates is having second thoughts about the monster he helped unleash. No one has done more than Gates to raise the stakes in testing by using test scores to evaluate schools and teachers in the US, but he has now recognised the dangers of what is happening. He recently wrote in the Washington Post that in the rush to implement new teacher evaluation systems, there is a risk that states and school districts will “use hastily contrived, unproven measures”.

Gates gave as an example a 166-page evaluation manual to be used in Ohio to hold physical education teachers accountable for meeting state targets in physical education. Standards for K-3 students include consistently demonstrating “correct skipping technique with a smooth and effortless rhythm” and “able to strike consistently a ball with a paddle to a target area with accuracy and good technique”.

He expressed concern about relying on test scores to determine a large part of teacher salaries.

I have talked to many teachers over the past several years, and not one has told me they would be more motivated, or become a better teacher, by competing with other teachers in their school. To the contrary, teachers want an environment based on collaboration, in which they can rely on one another to share lesson plans, get advice and understand what’s working well in other classrooms. Surveys by MetLife and other research of teachers back this up.

He noted that in top-performing education systems accomplished teachers earn more by taking on additional responsibilities such as coaching and mentoring other teachers and spreading effective teaching techniques. “Such systems are a way to attract, retain and reward the best teachers; make great use of their skills; and honor the collaborative nature of work in schools.”

While it is significant that Gates is dismayed at the direction being taken by many states and school districts with test-based accountability, it is the result of policies that he and other philanthropists have used their wealth to pursue over the past decade or more. Gates still wants to use test scores along with other measures to evaluate and pay teachers. How he expects to promote collaboration between teachers while encouraging them to compete with each other for salary increases he is yet to explain.

The testing obsession in the US is producing a backlash as a revolt against testing is growing around the country. Some teachers are refusing to administer tests; some students are refusing to take tests; some parents are withdrawing their children from tests; many school boards have passed resolutions against high-stakes tests; and academics are warning about the consequences of using standardized-test scores as an assessment tool. Communities are fighting against their schools being shut down based on test results and turned over to charter schools.

In Australia, the Federal Government and state governments are pushing down the same test-based accountability path. School NAPLAN test results are published on the My School website together with local area league tables and are used to publish national and state league tables in newspapers. The Federal Government offers reward payments to state governments, schools and teachers to improve their NAPLAN results. The Federal Opposition wants to extend national testing and supports performance pay for teachers based on test results.

These are all incentives for officials, principals and teachers to rig results in the same way as in the US. While it is early days in Australia with test-based accountability, the NAPLAN tests have already taken over the curriculum for much of the year as schools resort to practicing tests for weeks on end. NAPLAN test booklets are now amongst the biggest selling education texts.

We only have to look to the US to see what lies ahead. The Washington Post columnist, Valerie Strauss, put it in a nutshell:

Reformers keep pushing their bankrupt test-based accountability system…..despite overwhelming evidence that it has failed to improve schools and made a mess of school districts and communities. The saddest thing: There’s no end in sight.

The equally sad thing for Australia is that both sides of politics and education officials refuse to look at the evidence and continue to put blind faith in test-based accountability policies that have failed to deliver in the US.

Trevor Cobbold

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