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Are Schools Being Held Accountable for Declining Test Scores?

The Ethics of School Accountability

In my last blog I pointed out that the mean SAT reading scores of U.S. high schoolers have fallen to their lowest levels in nearly 40 years, dropping four points in the last four years to 497. Furthermore, only 43 percent of test takers achieved a total score indicating they are likely to succeed in college. The testing company claims this decrease is due to greater participation by a more diverse group of students, and cushions the news with information that our top-achieving students are doing even better. I suggested that the results may be a reflection that the gap between the haves and have-nots, or those in the know and those who know not, is widening

The results also indicate that while white students' overall scores decreased by a mere three points since 2006, black students' scores decreased by 19 points, Puerto Ricans' decreased by 17 points, Mexican-Americans' decreased by nine points, and "other Hispanics' " decreased by 14 points. For Asians, the trend is reversed: from 2006 to 2011, Asians' scores increased by 40 points. These results led me to question the value of the No Child Left Behind program that was put into place during the administration of George W. Bush.  

Some have suggested that schools are not being held accountable for the results of their efforts to educate young people and that standards-based education reform either is not working or is not being properly implemented. Others claim more money needs to be spent to foster real reform. Still others blame poor teaching and a lack of commitment by teachers for the disappointing results. These are important and complex issues that should be discussed in national forums with input from a variety of stakeholders including teachers, primary and secondary school administrators, potential employers and, most important, parents.

Unfortunately, there have been some instances that have created serious doubts in the mind of the public about the ethics of teachers and school accountability. In July, Nathan Deal, the Governor of Georgia, released findings from a now-infamous investigation into systemic, longstanding cheating in the Atlanta Public Schools. Some 178 teachers and administrators at 44 schools corrected students’ answers on standardized tests — even at weekend “changing parties.”

Also that month, allegations emerged that educators at 89 Pennsylvania schools may have doctored students’ test responses. In August, reports indicated officials were investigating cheating at a Connecticut elementary school; 17 teachers and administrators were placed on leave.

Out here in California land where virtually nothing works anymore it was reported last week that twenty-two California schools had their test scores thrown out this year for reasons ranging from outright cheating to comparatively minor mistakes, such as failing to cover up bulletin boards or stumbling over instructions. Nearly half of the schools lost their Academic Performance Index scores because of cheating by teachers on multiple-choice tests. Several others were penalized because of help teachers gave students that violated rules. There was even sabotage: Answers for 19 students at Jackson Avenue Elementary were changed from right to wrong. If a discrepency involves more than 5% of the school's students, the school doesn't receive a rating. I suppose that means it's OK to cheat so long as you keep it below the 5% threshhold.

Such schools and districts join others where cheating and questionable testing practices have occurred. Yet despite educators’ ethical lapses, no one has stepped forward to accept full responsibility for these actions and the accountability of administrators has come into question.

Instead, many have targeted the No Child Left Behind law and high-stakes testing, which base school ratings, penalties, and, increasingly, teacher evaluations on student test performance.

Temptation to inflate scores is unprecedented, The New York Times’ Michael Winerip wrote recently: “Never before have so many had so much reason to cheat.”

Some say high-stakes testing incentivizes, even causes, corruption. In Atlanta, investigators blamed cheating primarily on “pressure to meet targets in the data-driven environment.” The Save Our Schools organization, which links high-stakes testing with cheating, held a national rally to protest test-based accountability and other education policies. SOS claims, “Many school communities have resorted to cheating” in “desperation to raise test scores.”

I can’t help but conclude that school accountability is nonexistent and the whole system needs to be changed. Nothing short of a sea change in how we educated our young people is needed if we are to educate students in a way that enables them to be competitive in an increasingly globalized, and well-educated, international environment.