John Barge was working in Bartow County Schools when a high school student had a panic attack trying to pass the graduation test and a fourth-grader became so stressed taking the CRCT he drew blood stabbing his arm with a pencil.
"I believed well before the Atlanta cheating issue that we place far too much importance on high-stakes tests to determine a student's abilities, as well as a school's quality," said Barge, Georgia's state school superintendent since 2011.
Some education leaders and researchers - including Barge - say it is time - if not past time - for a national debate on whether high-stakes tests are having the uplifting effects that were promised. Or, as factors in teacher firings, principal bonuses, student promotions and school funding, are they hurting public education and encouraging cheating?
"We have strayed far from the true and useful purpose and intent of testing," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state's largest teacher group. "A reset' on the appropriate place for testing is long overdue."
High-stakes tests, such as Georgia's Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), are expected to play a central role in the criminal investigation of cheating in Atlanta Public Schools. Former Superintendent Beverly Hall received more than $580,000 in pay bonuses above her annual pay in the 12 years she worked for the district, based on academic goals laid out in her contract, and she is suspected of creating a culture of cheating, using threats and bonuses.
According to the nonprofit advocacy group Fair Test: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, cheating involving high-stakes testing has been confirmed in Texas, Ohio, 35 other states and the District of Columbia.
In one major case, a former El Paso, Texas school superintendent is in prison for devising an elaborate plan to inflate test scores at struggling schools and keep big pay bonuses coming his way. Ohio state auditor Dave Yost also found evidence that nine of the state's 600-plus school districts manipulated attendance data of low performers, with the idea of improving test scores. Yost told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution some criminal charges are likely.
Standardized tests are nothing new in public education. But they took on added significance with the passage of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, determining, for instance, whether a student moves up a grade or graduates from high school.
Proponents argue that the tests can improve student achievement and narrow the achievement gap between racial groups. They say that students, knowing the potential consequences, take the tests more seriously and work harder, and that the results allow teachers to more quickly assess when students and schools are struggling and need extra help.
Critics argue that high-stakes testing creates a pressure-filled "teaching to the test" climate that puts aside real learning and increases the dropout rate, largely among low-income minority students.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and former state school board chairman, said, "You've got to have a measurement system."
Still, in light of the cheating scandal, Isakson said he believes high-stakes testing is "certainly something we should take a look at."
"But if you are going to take that away, you've got to tell me what the substitute is," he said.
Alfie Kohn, author of "Feel-Bad Education" and other books, said "we're at least 20 years overdue for a serious national conversation about the damage that corporate-style, test-driven school 'reform' has done to our children and our public schools."
"Unfortunately, those who know the least about how kids learn have the most power," Kohn said. "And they want to continue the test-based status quo regardless of whether they're Democrats or Republicans."
Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, and Calvine Rollins, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said tests clearly have their place, as diagnostic tools, not as make-or-break propositions.
"In the current wave of education reform within the state and across the country, standardized testing has become over-used. Currently, there are 1o to 12 state standardized tests being administered in grades K-12," Rollins said. "These tests are being used as an accountability tool and for punitive actions against students, teachers and schools, not as a tool to ensure that students get additional help in areas where they need improvement."
Many educators feel "they must boost scores by hook or by crook," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for Fair Test.
"As with any profession, the more the pressure to produce unrealistic results ratchets up, the more people feel compelled to cross the ethical line," Schaeffer said.
Isakson, Atlanta school superintendent Errol Davis and others say that pressure from high-stakes tests never justifies cheating.
"Pressure causes angst, it causes anxieties," Davis said. "Sometimes it causes you to perform better, sometimes it causes you to get ill, but the decision to cheat is a decision that you have to make consciously."
Georgia's focus on high-stakes test is evolving - somewhat.
On one hand, the state is phasing out the make-or-break high school graduation test in favor of a series of tests taken throughout high school. On the other, it's rolling out a new teacher-evaluation system that factors in how a teacher's students show growth through standardized tests.
Barge said concerns about the pressure of high-stakes testing played a part in his decision to seek a waiver for the state from requirements of No Child Left Behind and to develop an alternative to judging schools on whether they met NCLB's measure of success, known as adequate yearly progress.
"Rather than having one test score determine achievement results for a school, we now look at multiple indicators of success for high schools, middle schools and elementary schools," he said of the new College & Career Ready Performance Index, which rates schools on a 100-point scale.
That should ease the pressure, Barge said. And, he said, "I think teachers can get back to teaching and doing the things that help really prepare students for the world they will face after high school."
Excerpts from the APS indictments
"While Superintendent of APS, Beverly Hall set annual performance objectives for APS and the individual schools within it, commonly referred to as 'targets.' If a school achieved 70 percent or more of its targets all employees of the school received a bonus. Additionally, if certain system-wide targets were achieved, Beverly Hall herself received a substantial bonus. Targets for elementary and middle schools were largely based on student performance on the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), a standardized test given annually to elementary and middle school students in Georgia..
"APS principals and teachers were frequently told by Beverly Hall and her subordinates that excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated. When principals and teachers could not reach their targets, their performance was criticized, their jobs were threatened and some were terminated. Over time, the unreasonable pressure to meet annual APS targets led some employees to cheat on the CRCT. The refusal of Beverly Hall and her top administrators to accept anything other than satisfying targets created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students' education.
"To satisfy annual targets and AYP, test answer sheets were altered, fabricated, and falsely certified. Test scores that were inflated as a result of cheating were purported to be the actual achievement of targets through legitimately obtained improvements in students' performance when in fact, the conspirators knew those results had been obtained through cheating and did not reflect students' actual academic performance."
What U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan said on Atlanta's cheating scandal and high-stake testing after APS indictments were issued
"What happened in Atlanta was immoral; it was heartbreaking; it cheated children. What I support in testing is multiple measures and improving assessments. We shouldn't place too much emphasis on one test, but instead we should look at multiple ways of measuring student growth." ******************************************* -- Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University 625 Wham Drive Mail Code 4610 Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O] (618) 457-8903 [H] Fax: (618) 453-4244 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org