With an investigation still in progress into a grade-changing scandal by teachers and administrators in the Montgomery Public School System, Alabamians should realize that educator cheating is not as uncommon as they might believe.
According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a group that advocates for the elimination of reliance on high-stakes testing in schools, educator cheating has been identified in 37 states (including Alabama) and the District of Columbia in the past four academic years. The center also claims it has documented more than 50 ways that schools improperly inflate student achievement and test scores.
Allegations of educator cheating around the nation have spurred teacher groups and others to blame the cheating on the reliance on high-stakes testing in public education.
While the disclosures of educator cheating have risen as reliance on standardized tests has increased, it seems to me that somehow blaming the testing for the cheating is ethically repugnant.
The highest profile case of educator cheating is in Atlanta, where more than 30 educators have been indicted on charges involving allegations of illegally changing student test results. But the center claims that cheating also has been reported in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, El Paso, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, New York City and Philadelphia.
It is important to note that the cheating scandal in Montgomery does not appear to involve high-stakes standardized tests. While the Alabama State Department of Education has not concluded its extended investigation into the Montgomery system, everything revealed publicly to date has involved a handful of educators changing the course grades of about 200 students at three Montgomery high schools -- changes that would make them more likely to graduate. (A State Department of Education official indicated this week that the Montgomery investigation still is ongoing and that the department would have no comment until it was complete.)
But another Alabama school system has been pulled into the public debate over educator cheating. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, which first broke the story of the Atlanta cheating scandal, reported last year that it had used a statistical analysis of test scores and test erasures to suggest that results of standardized tests of students in the Mobile school system were tainted.
State Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice was quoted by the AJC last year as dismissing the value of systematic screening methods such as erasure analysis, which is used by many states to look for suspicious changes to answers.
"You start doing that, you're on a witch hunt," Bice said. "It's a demoralizing thing unless there's a reason. We try to be a state where we deal with the people who make bad choices individually and not set policy based on that."
Which brings us to the basic questions of this column: Should the growing disclosures of educator cheating mean that high-stakes testing of students should end or that such tests should no longer be used to determine whether schools or school systems are failing students?
Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards, acknowledges that there can be problems with standardized testing, but says, "We shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water."
She said the data provided by such testing is crucial to measuring student growth and how much progress a teacher or a school has made with students.
Thomas Rains, policy director for Alabama's A Plus Education Partnership, also defends the need for continued testing as a way to measure teacher and school effectiveness. But he notes that it needs to be only part of an overall approach to measuring effectiveness; that student testing data needs to be used with other information such as teacher evaluations.
Rains points to a recent report, Measures of Effective Teaching, as a good beginning point for understanding the debate on the best ways to evaluate teachers. The report, issued in January, suggests a mixture of multiple measures -- testing of students to show progress, testing teachers to ensure they know their subjects and how to teach them, student surveys, and direct observation of teachers in the classroom.
[EXTRA: Measure of Effective Teaching]
Rains also suggests that results of tests of student progress need to be provided to teachers in a much more timely manner so that they "can use it to help see a better path forward for their students."
All of this leads me to conclude that Alabama needs to expand its public debate on how to improve testing so that it can be better utilized to help teachers improve individual student performance. The state also needs to address how best to use test data as part of an overall measure of teacher and school effectiveness.
In other words, there is a need in Alabama and in the nation for a public debate about high-stakes testing. But educator cheating has no place in that debate. Suggesting that high-stakes tests somehow inevitably lead to cheating ignores the fact that even with recent disclosures, the vast majority of educators do not cheat.
And suggesting that reliance on such tests should be eliminated because of cheating also serves as an excuse for dishonesty and outright fraud.School systems need to put strong measures in place to prevent educator cheating, and they need to get anyone who engages in it out of the education profession. But cheating scandals should have no place in the debate over the use of testing in public education.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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