Smith: Standardized tests fail education system

Smith argues that standardized testing corrupts educators.

Jessica Smith

Jessica SmithLately, it seems that there are more than a few bad apples standing at the front of our fair city’s classrooms.

Philadelphia public schools are under investigation for recent accusations of adult cheating on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams in 53 District schools in the past five years. As if that wasn’t enough of a blow to the reputation of the national education system, 178 teachers and principals in Atlanta Public Schools have been found guilty of raising students’ test scores in what is being called the biggest cheating scandal in America.

At this rate, it’d be no surprise if more scandals are unearthed in the coming months. For the first time, it’s out of the hands of school officials. There’s now a major law enforcement investigation into teacher cheating. The media coverage of Philadelphia and Atlanta is prompting a closer look at student test scores and patterns across the country, which should launch a nationwide domino effect.

Parents and government officials are outraged. How could people – educators, no less – be so dishonest? How could they manipulate the system and put so many jobs at risk? More importantly, how could they cheat children?

It’s easy to see the issue in black and white. Cheaters are bad guys. But there a lot of factors working against the education system that make the issue decidedly gray.

For one, the American public school system works with incentives. Funding is typically performance-based. Thanks to a ridiculous obsession with standardized scores, schools with higher test scores receive more money for supplies and programs. Teachers who can raise scores or show significant improvement on a yearly basis earn bonuses – in the case of the Atlanta school system, those could be worth around $25,000.

At the other extreme, schools with low scores face teacher and principal firings or complete school closings. This system supports the idea that scribbled-in letter bubbles are a sufficient depiction of what goes on in these schools instead of actually stepping foot inside them.

With the odds stacked so dramatically, it’s incredibly difficult to resist the temptation to cheat. Teachers and principals alike are facing enormous pressure to come up with results when they don’t have much to work with. In Philadelphia, officials voted last month to close 23 public schools – that’s about 10 percent of the total amount in the city. There isn’t room in the budget to adequately support any schools, let alone those that are falling short with test grades.

Meanwhile, former Auburn University football players have come forward to claim that former coach Gene Chizik allegedly changed grades, including switching former defensive back Mike McNeil from an F to a C before the 2011 BCS Championship game against Oregon, to make athletes eligible to play as well as allegedly offering them several thousand dollars each to return to the university instead of entering the NFL draft.

This news of manipulation of student athlete grades from Auburn came out around the height of the public school district scandals, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Was there a violation of moral codes in both cases? Yes, but public school cheating is more in line with a survival-of-the-fittest perspective while Auburn seems to cultivate the somehow still-present ideology that athleticism is superior to intellect. It undermined and undervalued the potential of student-athletes to perform in the classroom and instilled a harsh belief that worth was limited to their physical strength on the football field. Officials in this situation took the easy way out to earn their championship win.

Allegedly, of course.

Again, it would be simpler to sum up all this controversy in layman’s terms and crucify the accused for being bad people, etc. But it’s important to focus on what the past month is revealing about our societal norms.

Public school officials are being prosecuted for their wrongdoing when a pay incentive system already puts them on thin ice and college sports are still being held up to totally different standards of treatment and punishment.

Education cannot be measured in standardized test scores and it cannot be outweighed by athleticism. If we want to point fingers in these cases, we better acknowledge the construction of the world we live in and the stress induced on the accused.

Jessica Smith can be reached at 

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