What's Happening in Character?

Does 'Teaching to the Test' Actually Encourage Cheating?

Posted by Mark Hyatt on Fri, Jan 27, 2012 @ 16:01 PM

Mark Hyatt web

“Teachers matter,” said President Obama this week in his State of the Union address. “Instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”

We at the nonprofit Character Education Partnership (CEP) share this concern because “teaching to the test” can deceive stakeholders into thinking students are doing better than they really are. But in the current environment, we are even more alarmed by how the testing status quo seems to be adversely affecting the integrity of our education system, itself.

Recent revelations of widespread testing fraud in Atlanta's public schools are just the latest examples of a disturbing national trend that should finally force all of us who care about education to ask some uncomfortable but unavoidable questions. Chief among them: Has a national over-emphasis on standardized testing actually created a monster that is eroding the character of K-12 education?

In just the last year, institutional efforts to artificially inflate student performance—mostly for the benefit of teachers or administrators—seem to have reached epidemic proportions. Incredibly and ironically, cheating nationally among educators now seems even more pervasive than it was a decade ago (when federal 'No Child Left Behind' (NCLB) legislation was enacted for the purpose of elevating K-12 testing standards nationwide. Unfortunately, it seems that placing more emphasis on standardized tests to measure the effectiveness of teachers and schools has led some good educators to do bad things. In fact, as we later learned, even the signature success of the NCLB education model—the public schools system in Houston TX—apparently had succumbed to the temptation to shape scores to reflect desired outcomes.

Despite all of its noble intentions, this emphasis on high stakes/standardized testing seems to have done more harm than good and yielded troubling unintended consequences. So, why exactly are these good people cheating? I suggest that we are now getting what we inspect, not what we expect. Perhaps placing less emphasis on standardized tests and more on multiple measures of a teacher’s effectiveness and an individual student’s growth relative to his/her peers is now in order.

With that in mind, I believe it is time to step back and reassess our current national testing strategy. Our concern is that those unintended consequences are overtaking good intentions and instead creating pressures that frankly promote cheating. An educator secretly putting on plastic gloves and changing students test scores after hours only hurts students in order to benefit adults. Yes, we can make it harder for educators to cheat with stronger audits, “air-tight” tests that make it harder to cheat, or even civil penalties for those who do this. But really shouldn’t we change the system that tempts this bad behavior? Some say “we won’t have ethical people until we have ethical institutions”. I’ve heard others say just the opposite, we won’t have ethical intuitions until we have ethical individuals”. I think the answer is in between. At the end of the day, this dilemma undermines what should be the parallel (if not paramount) mission of every school: to graduate people of good character.

This month, after nearly a decade "in the trenches" in the role of K-12 public school superintendent, I have signed on to lead CEP in hopes of promoting this vital mission. Our goal is to create an environment of integrity both inside and outside the classroom that exposes students everywhere to people who are committed to enhancing their character. And we hope to promote examples not just in classrooms, but in sports, media, at home, and beyond.

Indeed, it is time for all of us to stand up and demand honesty and accountability from all of our students, teachers and school administrators. After all, our nation’s ability to compete internationally in virtually any arena now depends on it.

Based in Washington, D.C., the nonprofit Character Education Partnership is the leading national advocate for character education. Our goal is to strengthen our communities, nation, and democracy by empowering schools—teachers, administrators, students and community members. Our membership includes some of the nation’s leading education organizations, and our board of directors is made up of corporate leaders and experts in the field of character education. For more information, go to www.character.org.

Mr. Hyatt can be reached via e-mail at mhyatt@character.org

Topics: testing, cheating, no child left behind, character