by Patrick Appel
Dana Goldstein analyzes the Atlanta public school cheating scandal:
The extent of the top-down malfeasance under Beverly Hall may be unprecedented, but as I report in this Slate piece, there is reason to believe that policies tying adult incentives to children’s test scores have resulted in a nationwide uptick in cheating. An investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution found 196 school districts across the country with suspicious test score gains similar to the ones demonstrated in Atlanta, which statisticians said had only a one in 1 billion likelihood of being legitimate. A 2011 study by USA Today of test scores from just six states found 1,610 instances in which gains were as likely to be authentic as you are likely to buy a winning Powerball ticket. Absent independent, local investigations of suspected wrongdoing—which are rarely conducted—we simply cannot know the full extent of the cheating, which makes it difficult to assess whether the United States ought to continue down the road of tying teacher and administrator pay and job security to kids’ standardized test scores.
Incentivizing any field increases the impetus to cheat. Suppose journalism worked the way teaching traditionally had. You get hired at a newspaper, and your advancement and pay are dictated almost entirely by your years on the job, with almost no chance of either becoming a star or of getting fired for incompetence. Then imagine journalists changed that and instituted the current system, where you can get really successful if your bosses like you or be fired if they don’t. You could look around and see scandal after scandal — phone hacking! Jayson Blair! NBC’s exploding truck! Janet Cooke! Stephen Glass! — that could plausibly be attributed to this frightening new world in which journalists had an incentive to cheat in order to get ahead.
Edward Glaeser proposes a solution:
Teacher cheating isn’t an excuse to give up on standardized tests. It is a reason to administer them properly. Just imagine if college admissions tests were given by individual teachers rather than by the College Board. Teachers would have a huge incentive to help their favored students; the College Board, therefore, administers tests at well-monitored sites. If the U.S. is going to use standardized tests to evaluate teachers or schools, it should pay the extra price of using an external agency, such as the College Board.