So at least something good comes out of the latest testing imbroglio. But this is hardly the ideal way for kids to learn right from wrong. What does school-run cheating tell us about educational ethics in an era of testing mania?
Like many states, Maryland now attaches huge significance to its annual assessment tests--funding bonuses are awarded to schools that do well, teachers and principals from high-performing schools tend to be promoted, and parents vie in Darwinian fashion to get kids into the best-ranked school districts. But unlike low-performing schools where cheating sometimes occurs out of desperation, Potomac Elementary was doing quite well in test scores and prestige. Somehow, that wasn't enough for parents. They pressured the school not just to finish high but to hit number one. The pressure was particularly intense at Potomac in part because many parents mistakenly believe kids' performance on state ranking tests are the first step in helping them prepare for college entrance exams, and in part for property-values snobbery. As everyone knows, school ratings, snob indexes, and real estate are inexorably linked. Yet, as Montgomery County School superintendent Jerry Weast noted disconsolately after the scandal broke, "The tests were never designed for setting real-estate values."
Nor is state-test cheating confined to the Beltway. In New York City, 32 public schools and dozens of teachers are being investigated for various allegations of boosting state-exam performance. Eastgate Elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, a "school of excellence" visited by President Clinton this winter, was hit a few weeks later by a state-test cheating scandal. And many public schools in Houston are under scrutiny on allegations that teachers erased wrong exam answers and wrote in correct ones.
Though politicians of all stripes have used state-run tests in campaigning, the most prominent current example is Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, who says that one proof he is a "reformer with results" is that the percentage of public-school children passing the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test has risen from 53% to 78% during his governorship. But how much of that figure may turn out to be based on cheating? In addition to Houston, 10 other Texas public school districts are being investigated for either overt dishonesty or questionable forms of coaching to bolster state test scores. A telling indicator is that, in Texas, scores on state-assessment tests have risen impressively, while those on nationally administered tests have nudged up only a bit. That's progress, but also an indication that many schools are overcoaching or even rigging the state test result.
The testing mania began after publication of the gloomy 1983 report "A Nation at Risk," in which a government commission depicted public schools as collapsing and said that strict assessment would be needed both to improve kids' performance and to drive out the anything-goes pedagogic liberalism then in fashion. Testing has clearly had positive effects in terms of refocusing schools on core education. For instance, when "A Nation at Risk" was published, only 31% of high school graduates had passed an advanced science course; now it's 60%. The share of public-school kids taking and mastering other core subjects is rising, too.
So does the fact that state tests are handled by the schools themselves. Nationally run examinations, such as the SAT, are almost impossible to cheat on--the booklets come in at the last minute, non-school proctors administer the test taking, and packets are then whisked off for automated scoring by computers that, among other things, scan for abnormal patterns of erasure marks. State assessment tests, on the other hand, are administered and scored by the personnel of the school being graded. Between the pressure to claim gains and on-site control, individual schools have both "motive and opportunity," as a detective would say, to bend testing rules.