by Georgia Charter Schools Association
By Matt Underwood
One of the worst chapters in the history of public education in our city is nearing a close with the recent conviction and sentencing of 8 educators involved with widespread cheating by adults of student answer documents on the CRCT in Atlanta several years ago. In the aftermath of the trial and its outcome, there has been quite a bit of discussion in the media about the case, much of it focused on whether or not the punishment for these educators was appropriate or not. It seems as though not a day goes by without someone new arguing one way or the other about the sentences.
In the midst of this onslaught of opinions, I came across a sharp piece by Daniel Koretz, a professor from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, whose research is focused on educational testing and whose views I’ve shared before in my blog. Rather than get into the outcomes of the legal process, Koretz instead explores how the use of standardized testing has shifted markedly in the past 50 years from being used primarily alongside teacher reports and classroom work to provide complementary information about student learning to today’s use of standardized test scores as the main marker of student, teacher, and school “success” (or “failure”). The article (and short podcast accompanying it) are worth 15 minutes of your time, but here are two key takeaways and some commentary from me:
There is way too much pressure on students, teachers, and schools to raise test scores against often unreasonable targets. It’s clear from the APS case that the evidence shows those educators cheated and violated their contracts and code of ethics. It’s also clear that the expectations — both carrots and sticks — were way out of line in APS. Big monetary bonuses were offered up to school leaders for improved scores. And, of course, the need for those improved scores was to stay on track with arbitrary targets set up to be compliant with No Child Left Behind’s goal of 100% proficiency for all students on reading and math tests. As Koretz points out, Atlanta was not unique in this regard, and though the APS case has garnered lots of press, this combination of factors has led to cheating scandals in D.C., Texas, California, Pennsylvania, and several other states over the past several years.
Using test scores as the main basis for school and teacher accountability systems is simplistic and ignores many other indicators of a school’s or teacher’s effectiveness. Koretz says that the starting point for accountability systems needs to be “what we want to see when we walk into the classroom.” Needless to say, for most of us, it’s not seeing only how students do on a multiple choice reading or math test. There are many other important — even more important, in my opinion — measures of a school or teacher’s success, including how students perform on real tasks of writing, research, and problem-solving, whether students can monitor and manage their emotional learning, and how well students can communicate verbally.
These points by Koretz are important to consider in the wake of the APS testing trial verdict. Many people have pointed out that students served by the convicted educators were cheated out of parts of their educational experience. I don’t disagree. But unless and until we address the two points Koretz makes above, our accountability systems themselves are cheating students out of what could be more meaningful learning. For every convicted cheating educator, there are 1,000 others who work within the rules but engage in countless hours of test prep, teach students test-taking strategies, and work the system so that their students’ scores are as high as they can be. Those teachers are simply doing their job in a system that demands and rewards high test scores rather than more robust and holistic measures of student learning towards which these educators could be teaching.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. We can use standardized test scores more sensibly, as they were originally intended to be used, by giving shorter tests at a few points over the year so as to have a better picture of student progress and to not put so much stock into one single score. We can use performance-based assessments in writing, research, problem-solving, and the like — ”tests” upon which you cannot “cheat.” Instead of using money for bonuses based on test scores, we could instead use those funds to equalize funding across schools since test results clearly show disparities in scores based on a school’s level of resources. Shifting the huge amount of time and resources currently poured into administering state standardized tests (like this week’s Georgia Milestones) into approaches such as these would, I think, result in teaching and learning we’d all like to see.
The educators in the APS case were convicted and now must face the punishments that will come – you’ll get no argument from me on that point. But for all those who have expressed disgust with what those educators did, I hope that as much of their energy will be put into changing the flawed way we use test scores that’s equally at fault in this case, a system that is harming many more students on a daily basis than these educators ever did.
Matt Underwood is Executive Director of Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School
The views and opinions expressed on CharterConfidential are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency.