Rampant conspiracies to alter kids’ scores, including the one that resulted in the recent conviction of 11 Atlanta educators, attest to the dangers of high-stakes testing.
The social scientist Donald T. Campbell offered an insightful analysis of American education in his 1976 paper, “Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change.” One quote in particular stands out—a finding known as “Campbell’s Law” that has been used to explain the impact that high-stakes testing is having on the nation’s schools:
The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.
Yesterday the conviction of 11 former educators in Atlanta on charges related to their involvement in a conspiracy to alter student test scores is an example of this Campbell’s Law in action. And this wasn’t an isolated scandal.
Perhaps these things happen because of negligence. Maybe the teacher is just a rogue offender—an educator attempting to boost test scores for self-serving reasons. It could be the result of intimidation from top-down management, too. Regardless, the growing prevalence in recent years of dishonest practices such as these suggests that something is amiss within America’s schools. This new era of School Accountability 2.0 is contingent on the data gleaned from incessant standardized testing like the new Common Core exams—a recipe that doesn’t bode well for classroom ethics. School districts are increasingly tying teacher pay to performance, and there’s no consensus on the best way to measure student proficiency, so the high test scores are starting to look a lot like money. What emerges is bad news: a carrot-and-stick approach to a sector of the workforce that many consider to be underpaid.
For many, justice was served yesterday when the educators were convicted on charges of racketeering for their role in the high-profile conspiracy, dating back to 2005, to inflate the scores on their students’ standardized tests. The group was presumably motivated by the ever-increasing pressure from policymakers to fulfill federal and local performance expectations, which determined their eligibility for perks such as bonuses and even their employment status.
Yesterday’s verdict marked the end to a years-long legal process—notorious proceedings that muddied Atlanta’s one-time reputation for its apparent success in spearheading one of the nation’s most impressive school reformations in recent history. The Atlanta school district’s now-deceased superintendent, Beverly Hall, was even recognized as the National Superintendent of the Year in 2009—just months before the Atlanta Journal-Constitution started publishing aseries of stories that raised questions about anomalies in student test scores. A few years later, that reporting evolved into a large-scale investigation into the data titled “Cheating Our Children,” eventually expanding their probe to “test integrity nationwide.”
After the verdict was read yesterday, the defendants appealed the judge, Jerry Baxter, asking that he refrain from immediately sending the teachers to jail. But they failed to sway Baxter, who responded, “they have made their bed and they’re going to have to lie in it, and it starts today.” In a statement issued yesterday, the Atlanta Board of Education described the verdict as a closure to “a sad and tragic chapter for Atlanta Public Schools.” The board touted the district’s new superintendent, Meria Carstarphen, for implementing reforms “to make sure something like this never happens again.”