Standardized Testing Afflicts 5Cs and Public Schools Alike

What do a dozen Atlanta Public Schools employees and a former Dean of Admission at Claremont McKenna College have in common?

They were all caught cooking the books.

On April 1, 11 Atlanta educators were found guilty of inflating their students’ standardized test scores. Nine of them were later sent to the Big House, with three high-level school administrators sentenced to seven years in prison and 13 years on probation.

This might make some of you recall CMC’s rocky start to 2012, when Richard C. Vos, then vice president of the college and dean of admission, admitted to sending false SAT scores to college-ranking publications since 2005

Unlike his Georgian high school counterparts, Vos was able to resign and leave a free man. But beneath the obvious difference lies a troubling shared truth: Both Vos and the Atlanta educators inflated standardized test scores to keep their jobs.

Three months after the fallout, an independent report by O’Melveny & Myers LLP found that Vos “felt that [Gann] had too many goals,” which forced him to “falsify the [test scores]” when “admission decisions did not produce the targeted SAT statistic.” As it seems unlikely that Vos’s minor increments would’ve bumped CMC on any major ranking list, this explanation makes a lot of sense. Gann—who denied having “explicit goals for SAT scores”—later stepped down from the presidency in 2013.

The convicted Atlanta school workers were also pressured to cheat by a higher power. But unlike Vos, the teachers weren’t just trying to save their skins—they were trying to save their schools.

As outlined by The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv, school administrators—from Atlanta’s superintendent to individual principals across the district—coerced and incentivized their teachers to cheat their way to the top. Such was the case at Parks Middle School, three miles south of downtown Atlanta, an area where “half of the homes are vacant” and “students called the area Little Vietnam and Jack City, because of all the armed robberies.” There, teachers were relentlessly pressured to produce better test scores at all costs, culminating in “one of the largest cheating scandals in American education.”

So why are deans at rich liberal arts colleges in Southern California and teachers at poor high schools in Atlanta lying about their respective students’ test scores?

First, the Atlanta scandal isn’t the first case of teachers and administrators cheating their way to the top, and it won’t be the last. In 2003, for example, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that cheating occurs “in a minimum of 4 to 5 percent of elementary school classrooms annually.” And, as of 2014, testing fraud has occurred in 39 states and Washington, D.C. 

Given the evidence, it is highly unlikely that wealthy schools are doing most of the cheating.

For instance, research has shown that students’ SAT scores are highly correlated with their family income. In 2014, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing found that, on average, “students in 2014 in every income bracket outscored students in a lower bracket on every section of the test.” Students coming from families with annual incomes of $200,000 or more outscored students living under the poverty line by nearly 400 points.

And, as we saw in Atlanta, test scores directly correlate with state funding and employment. No wonder, according to a recent report for the Alliance for Excellent Education, “13 percent of the nation’s 3.4 million teachers move schools or leave the profession every year.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the SAT tutoring services are a multi-billion dollar industry, or that, according to the Census, “the number of test prep centers in the U.S. more than doubled to 11,000 from 1998 to 2012.”

Truth be told, I’m somewhat down with the idea of standardized testing. There should be an academic benchmark that holds schools, teachers, parents and students accountable. But thanks to federal incentives such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, standardized testing has become, as one commentator put it, “the arbiter of both student and teacher success.

America’s over-testing addiction can be denounced in a number of ways: It puts the arts and the social sciences on the back burner; it mirrors a society that devalues qualitative reasoning and praises quantitative metrics; it is neoliberal capitalism exerting its cold, wretched hands on the education system.

But, for now, let’s throw all that out the window, and let’s assume that standardized testing is the most efficient and productive way of analyzing educational outcome.

Surprise! It's not. 

The problem is that we, as a society, expect schooling to combat every single social woe in America, and we demonize teachers when they come up short.

But that’s not how eighth-grader Neekisia Jackson saw it. When her class got word of their (artificially) improved test scores, she felt vindicated: “Everyone was jumping up and down,” she said. “It was like our World Series, our Olympics. We had heard what everyone was saying: ‘Y’all aren’t good enough.’ Now we could finally go to school with our heads held high.”

Is this what we’ve come to—12-year-olds having to understand their academic and intellectual worth based on how accurately they fill out some bubbles?

Carlos Ballesteros CM ’16 is a history and sociology double major from Chicago.