More often than not, schools in both low- and high-income communities where students are actually learning are not where teachers are so worried about test scores that they feel forced to cheat. Instead, successful schools and districts provide their students with high-quality instruction, engaging curriculums and supports that deliver sustained student achievement. In my own experience as a teacher, I found that teaching the plays of August Wilson, turning vocabulary quizzes into Jeopardy games and spending extra time with struggling readers yielded much more success on those tests than drills on synonyms and antonyms did.
Obviously, the administrators and teachers at many schools don’t feel that emphasizing these factors will ensure success in the current accountability system. They may be right. NCLB pushed states to set goals for students to be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014. But the law’s response to schools that fail to meet these goals didn’t cause schools to double down on efforts to recruit great teachers or figure out new ways to teach math. Instead, schools became more focused on avoiding the law’s gradually increasing sanctions.
Almost everyone in education — from parents to the president — agrees that this accountability system doesn’t work. A new approach should encourage the kind of effective teaching and meaningful learning that leads students to success beyond any single year of test data. At the same time, schools (and teachers) that continually fail students have to change.
Expanding the criteria for rating schools may reduce the myopic focus on standardized test results. Such an assessment should cover factors that increase student achievement, including instruction, funding and support for students.
Standardized tests also have a place in the evaluation of schools. When students repeatedly do poorly on tests that accurately measure their knowledge, we should be examining the reasons. The challenge for policymakers is to craft the appropriate responses to any sign of school failure, whether it’s a lack of competent school leadership or insufficient lab tools for students to learn science.
There is no foolproof way to guard against cheating in a system where adults are ultimately responsible for student learning. But when education policy focuses on creating and supporting academic environments in which learning is the goal, school cultures will likely change from test-focused to student-focused. That’s a lesson worth teaching our children.
Saba Bireda is a graduate of Harvard Law School and an education advocate living in Washington, D.C. She is the deputy director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council.