High-Stakes Testing Cheats Children Out of a Quality Education

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, May 2012

Recent newspaper exposés documenting suspicious test scores around the nation are another example of how politically mandated misuses of standardized exams damage public schools and the children they serve. Experts have debated the methodology used by outlets such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and USA Today. There is no question, however, that test cheating is widespread. In just the past three academic years, FairTest has documented confirmed cases of score manipulation in 34 states plus the District of Columbia. These scandals are the predictable result of over-reliance on test scores.

As the renowned social scientist Donald Campbell concluded more than 30 years ago, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Campbell continued, “[W]hen test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” 

Testing experts have long recognized this problem. The Joint Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing warn against relying on tests as the sole or primary factor to make high-stakes decisions. The negative consequences of high-stakes testing are regularly demonstrated. They include reducing education to test prep, narrowing curriculum, and undermining school climate. These at times lead to increased suspensions or expulsions that push students into the prison pipeline. All these actions cheat children, particularly the most vulnerable, out of a decent education. The solution is not rhetoric nor more policing but a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s testing policies.

President Obama, Education Secretary Duncan and many governors regularly issue high-sounding statements about assessment reform. At the same time, the federal government is adding incentives to cheat by ratcheting up the emphasis on standardized exam results. Many governors and legislatures are piling on even higher stakes for test scores. (See article this issue.)

The policies of the Administration, many states and some districts contradict the recommendations of Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education, released last year by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. That distinguished panel of experts found that high-stakes testing has not improved educational quality. Instead, they concluded that the practices caused significant damage.

Cracking down on cheating is unquestionably appropriate. The Georgia Office of Special Investigators’ reports should be a national model of “best practices” for detecting and responding to testing irregularities. Application of a full range of forensic detection tools – including analyses for high numbers of erasures, unusual score gains, and patterns of similar responses – is often required to root out the truth. So, in some circumstances, are interviews with teachers and administrators. Because educational bureaucrats may have vested interests in protecting current policies and personnel, comprehensive reviews by independent law enforcement professionals are often best.

In the long run, enhanced test security may reduce the number of reported problems. More policing and better after-the-fact investigations will not, however, solve the many problems caused by the misuse of standardized exam scores. Instead, high-stakes testing requirements must end. They cheat students out of a high-quality education and cheat the public out of accurate information about school quality. A real solution requires a comprehensive overhaul of federal, state and local testing requirements.

- This article is adapted from an Atlanta Journal Constitution op. ed. by FairTest that was published on April 2, 2012.