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 Yorke
r’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.

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