John Barge was working in Bartow County Schools when a high school student had a panic attack trying to pass the graduation test and a fourth-grader became so stressed taking the CRCT he drew blood stabbing his arm with a pencil.
“I believed well before the Atlanta cheating issue that we place far too much importance on high-stakes tests to determine a student’s abilities, as well as a school’s quality,” said Barge, Georgia’s state school superintendent since 2011.
Some education leaders and researchers, including Barge, say it is time — if not past time — for a national debate on whether high-stakes tests are having the uplifting effects that were promised. Or, as factors in teacher firings, principal bonuses, student promotions and school funding, are they hurting public education and encouraging cheating?
“We have strayed far from the true and useful purpose and intent of testing,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teacher group. “A ‘reset’ on the appropriate place for testing is long overdue.”
Critics have long complained about the use of a single high-stakes test, such as Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). But their arguments have largely been dulled against the calls by corporate America, politicians and the public to improve student achievement and produce a more globally competitive workforce.
A national discussion now may be hard to avoid. A new survey by the nonprofit advocacy group Fair Test: National Center for Fair & Open Testing shows cheating involving high-stakes tests has been confirmed in Texas, Ohio, 35 other states and the District of Columbia.
The nation’s largest known test-cheating case last month became a criminal case, with former Atlanta School Superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 other school district staff under indictment on charges that include racketeering, false statements and writings.
Hall, who has denied any wrongdoing, is alleged to have created a culture of cheating, using threats and bonuses. She personally collected $580,000 in bonuses while she “publicly misrepresented the academic performance of schools throughout APS,” the indictment states.
A former El Paso, Texas school superintendent is in prison for devising an elaborate plan to inflate test scores at struggling schools and keep big pay bonuses coming his way. In Ohio, state auditor Dave Yost found evidence that nine of the state’s 600-plus school districts manipulated attendance data of low performers, with the idea of improving test scores. Yost told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution some criminal charges are likely.
“The rhetoric seems to be against individual educators, not against the system that may have sparked the behavior,” said Sharon L. Nichols, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, San Antonio.
“It is sort of like blaming a starving father for stealing food for his family and ignoring the reasons why the family is starving in the first place,” Nichols said. “Yes, the action in and of itself is wrong, but how can we ignore the conditions in which the actions happened?”
How high-stakes tests emerged
Standardized tests are nothing new in public education. But they took on added significance with the passage of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, determining, for instance, whether a student moves up a grade or graduates from high school.
Proponents say such testing can significantly improve American education by introducing a system of rewards and sanctions based on how students perform and focusing more attention on the achievement gap between racial groups. They say students, teachers and administrators take school more seriously and work harder to avoid punishments and obtain rewards.
Critics argue that high-stakes testing creates a pressure-filled “teaching to the test” climate that puts aside real learning and increases the dropout rate, largely among low-income minority students.
In light of Atlanta’s cheating scandal, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said high-stakes testing is “certainly something we should take a look at.
“But you’ve got to have a measurement system,” said Isakson, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and former state school board chairman. “If you are going to take that (high-stakes testing) away, you’ve got to tell me what the substitute is.”
Alfie Kohn, author of “Feel-Bad Education” and other books, said “we’re at least 20 years overdue for a serious national conversation about the damage that corporate-style, test-driven school ‘reform’ has done to our children and our public schools.”
“Unfortunately, those who know the least about how kids learn have the most power,” Kohn said. “And they want to continue the test-based status quo regardless of whether they’re Democrats or Republicans.”
Nichols said she hopes the focus on high-stakes tests and cheating will “trigger the DOE (U.S. Department of Education) to question the efficacy of HST.
Errol Davis, who succeeded Hall as superintendent in Atlanta, Isakson and others are adamant that no amount of pressure justifies cheating.
“Pressure causes angst, it causes anxieties,” Davis said. “Sometimes it causes you to perform better, sometimes it causes you to get ill, but the decision to cheat is a decision that you have to make consciously.”
Others, including Bob Schaeffer, public education director at Fair Test, believe some teachers have been made to feel “they must boost scores by hook or by crook.”
“As with any profession, the more the pressure to produce unrealistic results ratchets up, the more people feel compelled to cross the ethical line,” Schaeffer said.
Many states are in the process of developing or rolling out new teacher evaluation systems, which, factor in how students do on high stakes tests. Georgia is one of several, which had extra inducement to do so — having been awarded millions of dollars from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education reform initiative.
But at the same time, Georgia is taking other steps that officials say will de-emphasize high-stakes testing.
This came about as waivers Georgia and other states have received from mandates of No Child Left Behind. As part of its waiver, Georgia was allowed to develop an alternative to NCLB’s measure of success, known as adequate yearly progress (AYP). High-stakes test results had a huge bearing on whether a school made AYP.
“Rather than having one test score determine achievement results for a school, we now look at multiple indicators of success for high schools, middle schools and elementary schools,” Barge said of the new College & Career Ready Performance Index, which rates schools on a 100-point scale.
That, he said, should ease some of the pressure that high-stakes tests can create.
“I think teachers can get back to teaching and doing the things that help really prepare students for the world they will face after high school,” he said.
Excerpts from the APS indictments
“While Superintendent of APS, Beverly Hall set annual performance objectives for APS and the individual schools within it, commonly referred to as ‘targets.’ If a school achieved 70 percent or more of its targets all employees of the school received a bonus. Additionally, if certain system-wide targets were achieved, Beverly Hall herself received a substantial bonus. Targets for elementary and middle schools were largely based on student performance on the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), a standardized test given annually to elementary and middle school students in Georgia …
“APS principals and teachers were frequently told by Beverly Hall and her subordinates that excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated. When principals and teachers could not reach their targets, their performance was criticized, their jobs were threatened and some were terminated. Over time, the unreasonable pressure to meet annual APS targets led some employees to cheat on the CRCT. The refusal of Beverly Hall and her top administrators to accept anything other than satisfying targets created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education.
“To satisfy annual targets and AYP, test answer sheets were altered, fabricated, and falsely certified. Test scores that were inflated as a result of cheating were purported to be the actual achievement of targets through legitimately obtained improvements in students’ performance when in fact, the conspirators knew those results had been obtained through cheating and did not reflect students’ actual academic performance.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s team of investigative reporters broke the story about suspicious standardized test scores and possible cheating in Atlanta Public Schools in 2008.
Our commitment to bringing you complete coverage continues with today’s report on calls by some eductors and others for a national debate on how high-stakes tests are used.
For bonus coverage, including an interactive timeline, go to MyAJC.com.