The drum beat for more challenging national standards, increased teacher quality, and greater accountability for U.S. public schools has one element running through every aspect of education reform—testing. For months and months, reform turned the debate to teacher accountability that includes some element of standardized and high-stakes tests. But more recently, the national discourse about schools has been consumed by cheating on those sacred tests, data often used to claim "turn around," "miracle," and "no excuses"—claims that nearly always are revealed to be misleading at best and false at worst.
Cheating on tests is the topic of the day, now, including powerful arguments against the value of standardized tests and disturbing unwavering support for continuing our faith in and use of standardized tests.
When we were mired in arguments about and policies addressing teacher accountability linked to testing, we were wasting precious time and energy on a debate that missed the point. Now, we are once again wasting time and failing students, education, and society by focusing on cheating—a symptom, but not the disease—instead of looking at and addressing the cheated, where we can expose the disease—tests and the culture of testing and high-stakes accountability.
Standardized tests, high-stakes testing, and accountability are cheating students, universal public education, and democracy. From the moment education became enamored with objectivity and measurement in the early decades of the twentieth century, the possibility of education for democracy, human agency, and social equity began to erode, worn away year after year by placing goals and ideology grounded in positivism and empiricism above human dignity and complexity.
As a result, continuing a culture of testing in the U.S. has resulted in creating the cheated—students, teachers, and the majority of the American public not among the privileged class. Instead of debating how to increase test security or continuing the folly of chasing after better tests, education in the U.S. must stop standardized testing as a mechanism for labeling students, for gate-keeping, for evaluating teachers, for ranking the quality of schools and entire state's education, and for comparing the U.S. against the rest of the world.
Why does a commitment to standardized and high-stakes testing guarantee only the cheated?
• Standardized testing remains biased in terms of race (Santelices & Wilson, 2010), gender (Spelke, 2005), and out-of-school factors (2005 college-bound seniors, 2005; 2010 college-bound seniors, 2010). To call for education reform that addresses the achievement gap while ignoring that achievement gap is a reflection of the equity gap in society and while calling for continuing to use as a primary mechanism the exact system, standardized testing, known to perpetuate inequity is both illogical and unethical. A commitment to and continued use of standardized and high-stakes testing in education reform is a commitment to inequity.
• Calls for standardized testing is a indirect admission that we do not trust teachers as ethical people or as professionals. But this distrust must be based in something other than evidence because claims that objective data must be used in college entrance decisions, graduation, and scholarships, for example, because without those objective measures, teachers would just give away high grades doesn't match the evidence on standardized tests coming from the College Board itself:
The correlation of HSGPA and FYGPA is 0.36 (Adj. r = 0.54), which is slightly higher than the multiple correlation of the SAT (critical reading, math, and writing combined) with FYGPA (r = 0.35, Adj. r = 0.53). (Kobrin, et al., 2008)
And consider this, also from Kobrin, et al. (2008):
Unadjusted and Adjusted Correlations of Predictors with FYGPA
Predictor(s)/ Raw R/ Adj. R
1. HSGPA/ 0.36/ 0.54
2. SAT-CR/ 0.29/ 0.48
3. SAT-M/ 0.26/ 0.47
4. SAT-W/ 0.33/ 0.51
5. SAT-M, SAT-CR/ 0.32/ 0.51
6. HSGPA, SAT-M, SAT-CR/ 0.44/ 0.61
7. SAT-CR, SAT-M, SAT-W/ 0.35/ 0.53
8. HSGPA, SAT-CR, SAT-M, SAT-W/ 0.46/ 0.62
Note: N for all correlations = 151,316. Pooled within-institution
GPA remains slightly better than the SAT at doing the single purpose the SAT is designed to do—predict freshman college success—despite GPA being entirely the product of teacher assessments. As the chart above shows, the so-called objective SAT does add to the use of data (see 6, 7, and 8 above), but the sacred test is less predictive than teacher assessment.
• Testing creates a culture of isolation, a central component of cheating in fact. Learning and teaching, however, are best and necessarily communal and collaborative. In an authentic assessment environment, student work is collaborative and communal, thus cheating is eradicated without the wasted time and energy spent on dehumanizing practices such as test security.
• Testing reinforces a premium placed on completing tasks quickly and not well. Almost all standardized testing is timed, and thus sends the message that quality comes from compressing time spent on a task instead of honoring the value of care and revision in completing tasks that are authentic (especially consider the reduction of the writing process and products as a result of the testing culture [Ball, et al., 2005]).
• Testing drains a tremendous amount of time and money spent on test design, test preparation, test scoring, and test data analysis. As I have detailed above, that time and money are essentially wasted time and money that could be better spent on hundreds of other elements of teaching and learning that would benefit children and authentically address the equity gap in our schools and our society.
Cheating on tests can be easily eliminated by removing the conditions that breed the need to cheat. As a public school teacher for 18 years myself, I created a classroom where student products of learning were communal, collaborative, and authentic. We created an atmosphere where student grades were less important than learning and growing. Cheating in my classes was nearly non-existent, and when it occurred, the reason for the cheating tended to lie in old habits students had learned from the oppressive testing dynamics that had dominated their lives as students.
Because of a decades-long obsession with testing, U.S. public education, students, and teachers are the cheated, and if we genuinely want to reform education in ways that address social and academic inequities, tests—as mechanisms of inequity—must be eliminated along with high-stakes accountability.
2005 college-bound seniors: Total group profile report. (2005). Princeton, NJ: College Board. Retrieved 27 August 2009 from http://www.collegeboard.com/...
2010 college-bound seniors: Total group profile report. (2010). Princeton, NJ: College Board. Retrieved 21 July 2011 from http://professionals.collegeboard.com/...
Ball, A., Christensen, L., Fleischer, C., Haswell, R., Ketter, J., Yageldski, R., & Yancey, K. (2005, April 16). The impact of the SAT and ACT timed writing tests. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Kobrin, J. L., Patterson, B. F., Shaw, E. J., Mattern, K. D., & Barbuti, S. M. (2008). Valididty of the SAT for predicting first-year college grade point average. College Board Research Report No. 2008-5. New York: The College Board. Retrieved 12 August 2008 from http://professionals.collegeboard.com/...
Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010, Spring). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 106-133.
Spelke, E. S. (2005, December). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958.