Beyond Atlanta: Fixing Corruption in High Stakes Standardized Testing

Although corruption in educational systems is viewed as a pervasive problem in developing countries, wealthy countries have had their fair share of educational corruption as well. In the United States, for example, the harsh prison sentences in the recent cheating scandal in the Atlanta school system cheating received extensive news coverage this past spring. While it’s true that what happened in Atlanta was particularly wide-spread, involving 44 separate schools (and dozens of principals and hundreds of teachers), this is hardly the first time a significant teacher or administration-driven cheating scandal has come to light. In the last few years, teachers and principals have been caught cheating all over the United States: twenty teachers in Houston were removed from the classroom for cheating on elementary school tests while in Philadelphia, there was a multi-year investigation that involved 138 educators in 27 schools. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing claims that in the last five years, there have been reports of standardized exam cheating in 37 states and the District of Columbia. They have catalogued over fifty different ways that educators helped their students cheat. And although anticorruption efforts in education frequently revolve around the exchange of money or sometimes sex for grades, the sort of cheating involved in these scandals is also a form of educational corruption. Alteration of student tests, even when the students themselves may not benefit from it, is a perversion of the system and a way for teachers and principals to put themselves in line for undeserved awards, given that many educational systems in the U.S. now operate under a high-stakes testing regime in which student performance has a significant impact on teacher and principal evaluations.

Indeed, it is clear that we are not dealing with a few corrupt “bad apples,” but rather with a widespread pattern of teacher and principal corruption. A significant contributor to this problem is the high-stakes testing system described above, which gives teachers and principals to manipulate test results for their own material benefit. Fortunately, there are a few fairly simple steps that would eliminate most of the opportunities for this sort of corruption:

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