September 2011 Editorial: Measures for Measures

When the consequences of test failure are school closures or firings, and schools are denied the tools to give them a chance of success, it is hardly surprising to discover widespread abuse of the testing system.

The cheating scandals which began in Atlanta and spread across the country are only the most blatant examples of what happens when testing goes too far. Strategies that boost scores without improving learning, like teaching to the test and encouraging low-scoring students to drop out, have become an entrenched part of educational administration. Such corruption, which undermines educational quality, is an inevitable consequence of the intense pressure that high-stakes testing puts on teachers and principals. The investigation into the Atlanta scandal found, “The targets set by the district were often unreasonable, especially given their cumulative effect over the years. Additionally, the administration put unreasonable pressure on teachers and principals to achieve targets… Ultimately, the data and meeting ‘targets’ by whatever means necessary, became more important than true academic progress.”

Erasing errors is just one of many ways to “cheat” on standardized tests. A long-standing practice has been to encourage low-performing students to drop out before they are tested. Last year, the Texas high school dropout rate was calculated to be as high as 33 percent with speculation that the rate may be higher than 50 percent for Hispanic students and about 46 percent for African American students. The raw data show that each year more than 130,000 Texas students who enter high school as ninth-graders do not graduate with their class four years later.

The National At-Risk Education Network (NAREN) has just released a July survey of educators on high-stakes testing ( that documents “fire-bombing” of teachers by students deliberately messing up their tests in hopes of getting the teachers fired.

Now, this does not mean that students should not be tested. Assessments are valuable indicators for both educators and students that have an integral role to play in educational development. But testing is only part of the equation.

On her website (, educational campaigner Susan Ohanian lends an interesting insight into the widely admired Finnish educational system which has performed so well in international comparisons. Ohanian uses the following quotations from Jukka Sarjala, former director-general of Finland’s National Board of Education, which support the argument that more effort needs to be concentrated on reducing educational inequalities rather than testing: “Efforts have accordingly been made to provide all population groups and regions of the country with equal educational opportunities. The findings of PISA (the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment) show that Finnish comprehensive schools have built up key competencies which are both high quality and also of high equality.”

“…in Finland, the gap between high and low performers is relatively narrow. It is most encouraging that high quality and high equality of educational outcomes can go together.”

“In Finland, the role of teacher-based assessment is all the more important because at comprehensive schools students are not assessed by any national tests or examinations upon completing school or during the school years. Finnish education authorities do not like any ranking list of schools, although the mass media is interested in these lists.”

Instead of knee-jerk reactions to test results, we need to use data intelligently, involve those responsible for the results — teachers, students, parents, administrators — in any actions that are taken as a result of them. Test results, like most statistics, can be skewed to suit but that’s a waste of time. Using test results to help close the achievement gap between students will likely be much more efficient than punishing teachers struggling with the least resources to educate those in the most need.