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Testing, Crime, and Punishment

As educators in Atlanta face jail time, an expert weighs in on where we’ve gone wrong with standardized tests

April 15, 2015
Testing classroom

Cheating. A groundbreaking court case. Opting out.

When it comes to standardized testing in the nation’s schools, few years have been as tumultuous or as polarizing as this one. And in a week where eight educators were sentenced to up to seven years in prison for their roles in a widespread cheating scandal in the Atlantic Public Schools (APS), what are some of the questions facing educators and policymakers tasked with ensuring student progress?

In an EdCast taped on Monday, Professor Daniel Koretz — author of Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us — calls the APS cheating case “the canary in the coal mine,” a cautionary tale about pressure “to raise scores at any cost.”

“I think we have lost sight of why we test kids,” says Koretz. “If you go back 40 to 50 years ago to the time when standardized testing was becoming very common in America’s schools, the people who designed these tests were adamant about their appropriate use. They said they were designed to provide supplementary information that teachers couldn’t easily get on their own, they were adamant that they were insufficient to evaluate schools or programs on scores by themselves.

“We’ve just lost sight of that. The purpose of a standardized test is to provide us a comparable metric for a small subset of what schools are supposed to produce, and it’s very valuable for that purpose. It’s how we know, for example, how much progress there has or has not been in closing achievement gaps nationwide, but it just doesn’t work to say we can hold teachers accountable simply for raising math and reading scores.”

Koretz offers three key considerations for policymakers:

  1. The amount of pressure to raise scores is simply too high.
  2. The targets are arbitrary and in some cases unreasonable.
  3. The starting point for a sensible accountability system, he says, is to think about “what we want to see when we walk into the classroom. We have to agree on what the most important things are and all of those have to be rewarded by the accountability system.” It doesn’t make sense to pick one or two subjects for testing and ignore the others, he adds. “That gives people incentive to ignore the others [subjects] in their behavior.”

“If you impose a simplistic numerical measure and lose sight of the other important goals of the institution,” says Koretz, “then the other goals get short shrift.”

(Photo: Flickr/Jeff Pioquinto, SJ)

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