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Atlanta’s Standardized Test Cheating Scandal Runs Through White House

Bill Ayers: Standardized testing incentivizes cheating and is a worthless proxy for learning.

The road to the massive cheating scandal in Atlanta covered in The New York Times beginning late last month runs right through the White House.

The former superintendent, Dr. Beverly L. Hall, and her 34 obedient subordinates now face criminal charges, but the central role played by a group of unindicted and largely unacknowledged co-conspirators, her powerful enablers, is barely noted.

Beyond her “strong relationship with the business elite” which reportedly made her “untouchable” in Atlanta, she was a national superstar for more than a decade because her work embodied the shared educational policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. In the testing frenzy that characterized both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, Dr. Hall was a winner, consistently praised over many years by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for raising test scores, hosted at the White House in 2009 as superintendent of the year, and appointed in 2010 by President Obama to the National Board for Education Sciences. When the Atlanta scandal broke in 2011, Secretary Duncan rushed to assure the public that the incident was “very isolated” and “an easy one to fix.”

That’s not true. According to a recently released study by the independent monitoring group FairTest, cheating is “widespread” and fully documented in 37 states and Washington D.C.

The deeper problem is reducing education to a single narrow metric that claims to recognize an educated person through a test score. Teaching toward a simple standardized measure and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the “outcomes” both incentivizes cheating and is a worthless proxy for learning.

I recently interviewed leaders at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools – the school Arne Duncan attended for 12 years and the school where the Obamas, the Duncans, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his wife sent their children – and asked what role test scores played in teacher evaluations there. The answer was: none. I pressed the point and was told that in the Laboratory School leaders’ view, test scores have no value in helping to understand or identify good teaching. None.

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