Destructively Simple Data

In ancient China, the key metric for women's beauty was small feet.  The result?  Foot-binding.

In today's America, the key metric for 6 million school teachers and administrators is standardized test results.  The result?  Cheating in Atlanta.  Only in Atlanta?

Web and news coverage comparing schools focuses sometimes exclusively on the relative percentages of students who met or did not meet testing goals.  Each state devises its own test and determines what level of performance students in that state should meet, making cross-state comparisons useless.  But within states, superintendents push for better test results, partly to pad their own resumes.

When the superintendent tells principals their evaluation rests on test scores and principals tell teachers the same, the results are predictable.  Elevating one metric -- in this case student test scores in math, reading and perhaps writing and science -- above all else schools do may give school X some great publicity, but what is being done to raise the scores?

In the Atlanta Public Schools, it was a clear case of cheating.  Erasing wrong answers and changing them is pretty blatant.  Everyone involved should be fired.  Forget the Nuremberg Defense, teachers and principals.  If you did something unethical just because your boss was pressuring you, you're still guilty.

But what about the other ways administrators push test results over instruction?  I was guilty as a high school principal of having students who hadn't met standards retest to meet them during the year.  I was guilty of bribing classes with ice cream sundae parties to meet school targets, usually around 70% of students meeting standards.  Why?  Because my school's reputation was at stake.  We also worked on aligning instruction to state curriculum standards but the attention to testing was, for the most part, not educationally relevant.

Other schools took even more drastic measures:  taking away electives so students could spend extra time  preparing for tests, denying students recess time for more test-focused instruction, dedicating specific classroom time to test-taking strategies (not content), punishing students who did not meet standards and so on.

Want to shape any institution narrowly?  Choose a single measurement of its success and push that measurement on employees, under risk of losing jobs or promise of increased pay.
  • Emphasize short-term profits over long-term and watch capital assets be divested.  We saw this in the local timber industry when mills with their valuable timber stands were bought by large Texas corporations, clear-cutting all the timber and then dumping the mills.  
  • Emphasize a single nutrient in selecting foods at the supermarket and watch even Fruit Loops proclaim health benefits.  
  • Emphasize EPA mileage ratings and watch automakers remove features (like regular spare tires) from their cars that buyers need and expect but that drop mileage ever so slightly.  
What happened in Atlanta is happening to some degree in many more school districts.  Wherever leaders pressure teachers to achieve higher results on a single measure without regard to other educational values, education will suffer.  Too many administrators, particularly at the highest levels, are more focused on their own careers than on genuine improvements for students.  Ambition and shortsightedness are destructive.  Giving ambitious administrators a single metric makes it far too easy for them to boost their own credentials by focusing their schools narrowly on one task to the exclusion of others.

If I were looking for a way to genuinely evaluate schools, I would ignore all of the high stakes measurements now in vogue (e.g. state test scores, graduation rates, discipline referrals) and look for other measures that schools are achieving IN SPITE OF the high stakes ones.
  • How many are going on to colleges?  
  • How peaceful is the campus?  How clean?  
  • What do parents report about the school?  
  • What is being done for gifted students?  
  • How well connected is the school to the community? 
  • What opportunities are available for students and how many participate?  
  • How do students do in academic competitions?  
  • What is emphasized by the administration?  
  • How much "down time" is there in classrooms?  
  • What kind of homework is assigned?  
I could go on and on.  Let's see school staffs who've set a vision for student success beyond the ones set by their state and federal governments. 

For more detailed discussion of how emphasizing narrow data results is damaging education see Data Driven and Rudderless.

See also:  "Good Schools"


  1. Standardized testing is a major reason why my children will never attend a public school in this country.

    I see nothing wrong with teachers cheating on the tests. They're meaningless bullshit in the first place. Suppose half the kids in my class are Hispanic-Americans for whom English is a second language, and the other half have serious disabilities. And suppose the kids in your class are all healthy, well-off native English speakers. Well of course your students will score better than mine, but that doesn't tell us anything about who's doing a better job. If we're going to fire (or promote) people based on such bogus criteria, then heck, let's promote them based on whoever does the best cheating--it's just as valid.

    Accountability is great and all, but accountability to whom? Parents already know if their kids are learning in school (and if they don't, a standardized test isn't going to fix that problem). Teachers already know which of their kids are doing well and which ones need more help. What does some administrator in the state capitol or Washington need with this information? What are they going to do that the parents and teachers couldn't already?

    It's completely absurd.

    As a parent--even as a homeschooling parent--I firmly believe that the vast majority of teachers have their students' best interests at heart and genuinely want to teach them things. And yet we turn around and constantly try to micro-manage and "assess" student progress as though we were sorely afraid of teachers trying to defraud us all. Why don't we put the politicians under this kind of scrutiny, and treat the teachers like fellow humans?

  2. Sadly we have moved away from caring about the quality of the teaching to caring only about the grades schools get. There's nothing sensible about it and we've lost a good deal of what really does matter in our scramble to increase our scores. Remember pinball? Atlanta schools "tilted". But what difference does it really make if you win the pinball game or not? You just get to play again next year, and the year after. All that pinball displaced other things you could have done with your life (or your classroom).


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