Testing, Cheating, Culture and Corruption

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Matt draws our attention to some of the broader issues raised by the APS scandal. Cheating is not just about cheating.

Here’s another one of those broader issues I think we should take note of. To call this “cheating” is really inadequate. This was a whole institutional culture in which cheating had become not just acceptable, but normal. This was way beyond teachers subtly indicating the correct answers (such as through tone of voice) or deliberately seating bad students next to good ones (so they could copy). Those things happened, but much more happened.

Teachers had “cheating parties” in which they sat around erasing and remarking student answer sheets. There was one guy whose job was to open test booklets, copy the contents, reseal them (using a lighter to melt the plastic back into place) and then distribute the contents to everybody. This was a huge, pervasive, known-to-everybody cheating system.

And cheating was not just normal but mandatory. Hark ye, my bretheren, unto the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

For teachers, a culture of fear ensured the deception would continue.

“APS is run like the mob,” one teacher told investigators, saying she cheated because she feared retaliation if she didn’t.

Cheat – or else!

What’s going on here? This is not just the undifferentiated “corruption of human nature.” This is a very specific dynamic of institutional culture. This is a system whose organizational culture responded to NCLB by systematically embracing cheating at all levels, even to the extent of viewing non-cheaters (i.e. honest teachers) as threats to the integrity of the system.

We should think carefully about how that kind of thing happens. There is one hypothesis that sticks out to me as clearly plausible: This happened because the testing requirements of NCLB were percieved as evil, tyrannical and a threat to the integrity of education. Personnel at all levels actually viewed cheating as morally virtuous because it was necessary to protect an essential good (education) from being undermined by vicious oppressors with evil agendas. And given widespread teacher cynicism about the value of standardized tests as a metric of learning, in their perception nothing valuable was lost in the process.

This is about more than cheating. This is a wakeup call to our thinking about how reform works.

I have always been in favor of the aspect of NCLB that uses tests to create transparency. Remember, before NCLB you didn’t even have all states participating in NAEP. Anyone want to go back to that? No? Well, then, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

However, it is now pretty clear that NCLB does not work as an accountability tool. Might the systemic, institutional extent of the cheating in APS help explain why? Teachers and administrators don’t percieve the tests as legitimate – they see them as inaccurate metrics being imposed by evil oppressors as tools of exploitation – and thus don’t respond to them in positive ways. (On net, that is. Bad responses cancel out good ones.)

Contrast that with the use of testing for accountability in two other contexts. Jeb Bush’s A+ accountabiliy testing system in Florida did produce positive results. Could that be because Florida had spent years at the bottom of the national listings for education and was sick of it, and had spent years trying to improve through the tried and true ideas of the unions and was sick of failing, and was thus more open to new directions? In the context of this openness, Jeb Bush’s leadership, and his partnership with the right stakeholders, framed the reforms in a way that caused them to be experienced as legitimate at the school level.

Even more impressive, consider the use of testing in innovative charter schools like KIPP. Remember that David Brooks column blasting Ravitch? Brooks identifies what he calls “a core tension,” namely: “Teaching is humane. Testing is mechanistic.”

However, in schools where the entire institutional culture has been reinvented from the ground up around personal relationships between teacher and student that are centered around leadership, mentorship and accountability, testing isn’t experienced as mechanistic at all. Where the students really see the teachers caring about them, and vice versa, standardized testing is accepted as a tool that empowers this relationship:

The schools that best represent the reform movement, like the KIPP academies or the Harlem Success schools, put tremendous emphasis on testing. But these schools are also the places where students are most likely to participate in chess and dance. They are the places where they are mostlikely to read Shakespeare and argue about philosophy and physics. In these places, tests are not the end. They are a lever to begin the process of change…

Ravitch thinks the solution is to get rid of the tests. But that way just leads to lethargy and perpetual mediocrity. The real answer is to keep the tests and the accountability but make sure every school has a clear sense of mission, an outstanding principal and an invigorating moral culture that hits you when you walk in the door.

I think this means it’s essential that the use of tests for accountability purposes must be implemented only in contexts of institutional culture where they will be experienced as legitimate – and the degree to which the tests are used must be controlled by the degree to which the institutional culture permits this experiential legitimacy.

In some cases (as with Jeb in Florida) that could be accomplished statewide. In others it can’t. Sometimes it will have to be districts, or a network of charter schools. In many contexts it won’t work at any level. It certainly won’t work nationally, since the institutional context of the federal role in education could never permit this kind of thing to develop in a way that would be seen as legitimate.

How, then, do we drive accountability? Choice and competition, obviously. And guess what? Once schools face the disruptive threat of choice, they will be more likely to start using tests for accountability voluntarily – because they want to survive and they’ll be ready to reconsider their options.

You know, it strikes me that this principle might have application to other issues besides accountability testing. In general, the higher you go up the ladder of power – from school to district, from district to state, and from state to national – the less likely you will really be implementing your reform, and the more likely you will just be playing power games, and be seen to be playing power games, and thus cause those below you on the ladder to respond by playing power games of their own. As in Atlanta.

9 Responses to Testing, Cheating, Culture and Corruption

  1. To support Greg’s claim that cheating was endemic in Atlanta, it is useful to remember that there was widespread non-compliance in Georgia with the anti-social promotion law the state adopted. School officials just disobeyed the law and no one was punished. That’s part of how you create a culture of cheating.

    I wrote an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about it back when the story broke: http://www.ajc.com/search/content/opinion/stories/2008/07/13/retention.html?COXnetJSessionIDbuild103_prod=QJnTL52fKWn2PZydBQYkycJKphPLh4L4mSKVx28TFRpZB5Vvt6vb!1084820185&UrAuth=`N^NUObNWUbTTUWUXUaUZT[UTUWU]U\UZU`U`UcTYWYWZV&urcm=y

  2. Montana says:

    You know what this current crowd of GOP liars want is to turn the United Sates into China, where only a few giant corporations run things, they own the factories, the apartments, the grocery stores, the gas stations, the newspaper and magazine publications, the radio stations, the television stations and you pay them and they get all the benefits, and if you do not like it go jump off cliff. Well some Chinese workers seeing that as individuals that they cannot progress have done just that by committing suicide.

    The current crowd of GOP liars want to steal Medicare from the elderly, they want to abolish a woman’s right to choose and have control over her own body, they want to abolish collective bargaining rights for our Unions, and on top of it all they want to blame the poor, the middle class and the public sector workers for a recession that the GOP created (Thanks to the Dullard “W”), while their beloved “Fat cats” continue to pay themselves exorbitant salaries, bonuses, fringe benefits.

    The GOP is like the “Chicken Littles” always saying that the “Sky is Falling”, like the same ones that were the “Chicken Hawks” (“W” Wars), big talk no courage.

    The United States, favors creativity wherever it can be found. We’re apostles of prosperity and defenders of the free exchange of ideas and when more people in more countries are free to rise, to invent, to communicate, to dissent, it’s not the doom of United States leadership, its the triumph of the American way.

    Generations have worked hard and sacrificed much for the country to reach this point (individuals and our Unions that represented our poor, the middle class and public sector workers), and with further hard work and sacrifice (along with our relentless self-doubt) the United States will rise again, we do not tire and we are coming back, no matter what Fox news and their GOP “Chicken Littles” lackies keep saying about our nation. The win in New York was the beginning but the next will be Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and later the other states of our nation, Never Bet Against the United States, watch out GOP, we are coming for you!

  3. matthewladner says:

    I agree Greg, and I have to say that watching state officials drop their state cut scores and then run around bragging about the “progress” in their state, even to the point of trying to trash NAEP, is every bit as much if not more disgusting than what went on in Atlanta.

    I experienced this first hand in Arizona, and I’m sadly confident it is going on in other states. Pulling off a successful state testing system is very difficult. It can and has been done, but I think it is an open question as to what we are getting out of the average state system.

  4. Minnesota Kid says:


    I think we have to be realistic about the extent to which competition does or does not solve the test cheating problem. True, it provides market-based accountability as an alternative to just test-based accountability (or as a re-enforcer of test-based accountability). But government regulation at some level will remain necessary.

    Organizations in markets pursue their self interest. For schools, that means looking good to potential customers by having high test scores. The incentive to cheat would remain high, and the free-market would not provide any systematic check on that. Yes, any school caught cheating would likely suffer a loss of customers but the chances of getting caught would be slim absent some regulatory arrangements.

    Corporations periodically cheat on their books to look good to investors and tend to only get caught due to government-based regulations or investigations. Parents alone cannot and would not police a testing regime.

    • allen says:

      A free market drives test-based accountability since there’s no other means by which the consumer can judge the reliability of the claims made for a product by its manufacturer. J.D. Powers isn’t a government entity but auto manufacturers worry about their standing in the J.D. Powers reviews.

      The absence of choice under a monopoly obviates the need for test-based accountability. After all, it’s a monopoly so you can’t very well select a competing product. But the public education system is a product of the political system so even if mommies and daddies can’t elect to send junior off to a different district school test results can effect the choice elected representatives make.

      That’s why, paradoxically, this cheating scandal is a good thing. Cheating indicates something of value is at stake whereas previously there wasn’t any point to cheating because it neither got the districts anything of value nor cost them anything of value.

  5. Greg Forster says:

    Competition is not a cure-all. It’s just tons and tons better than command and control.

    All the problems you identify are:

    1) present without command and control, and
    2) present and much worse with command and control.

    You’re wrong that cheating corporations “tend to only get caught due to government-based regulations or investigations.” Actually government regulations and investigations uncover a small minority of corporate cheating cases. It’s much more common for investors to discover the cheating and bring it to the government, which merely confirms the cheating and punishes it.

    Vigilence by non-governmental stakeholders is the primary method by which cheating is discovered in all other sectors. Here, as everywhere, the problem is our tendency to assume that education is somehow radically different from every other area of life.

    Moreover, broadly speaking individuals and organizations can seek to secure their own interests in two ways. They can authentically and productively serve the needs of others and in so doing secure their own needs through exchange; or they can seek to unproductively extract their own advantage to the disadvantage of others by exploiting them through various forms of power. In the marketplace, you find both these approaches – usually you find them mixed together so extensively that it’s often hard to tell exactly where one begins and the other ends. Not only organizations but even individuals are motivated by a mixture of good and bad motives that produces behavior informed by both at once.

    But in the midst of all this confusion, in general there is one iron rule: the use of political power to influence the process of picking winners and losers always drives everyone immediately and forcefully in the direction of full-fledged screw-my-neighbor mode.

    Government control is good and healthy when it punishes transactional injustice; it is dangerous, but sometimes necessary nonetheless, when it more broadly shapes the formation of institutions to nurture the social conditions under which transactional justice is preserved; it is always monstrous and dehumanizing when it seeks to influence who wins and loses in the marketplace.

    • Minnesota Kid says:


      All I’ll say is that when government “broadly shapes the formation of institutions to nurture the social conditions under which transactional justice is preserved” it also, to some extent, “influences who wins and loses in the marketplace.” You can’t say that government action is benevolent except when it helps some and hinder others because everything that government does benefits some stakeholders at the expense of others. There are always winners and losers as a result of what government does.

      • Greg Forster says:

        That’s right – if you want, read my comment to say that government shouldn’t influence winners and losers except insofar as is necessary to fulfill its legitimate functions. And I don’t see that being the case here.

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