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?
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.
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?
For more detailed discussion of how emphasizing narrow data results is damaging education see Data Driven and Rudderless.
See also: "Good Schools"