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Response to Ed Sector's Kevin Carey on Atlanta teachers

In the recent issue of The New Republic, analyst Kevin Carey wrote an opinion piece insisting that Atlanta teachers and administrators who had helped to cheat on standardized tests had only themselves to blame. He dismisses arguments by education advocates that the emphasis on standardized testing is somehow to blame as well. Carey also dismisses broader arguments about the dangers of using quantitative measures for high-stakes evaluation. Carey is policy director of Education Sector, a reformist Washington DC think tank.

We wrote a brief reply, which we will expand upon in a coming article on this site. Our emphasis was that, while the cheating itself was not excusable, the system was constructed in such a way that bad effects were likely. Even if there was no outright cheating, the emphasis on scores would certainly lead educators to focus only on test results and ignore the broader effort to educate children. Our letter to the Editor of TNR follows:

To the Editor:

I was appalled to read Kevin Carey’s article regarding cheating on standardized tests (“The Good News in the Atlanta and D.C. School Cheating Scandals,” July 19th). He dismisses Campbell’s “law” (that heavy reliance on quantitative indicators will subject those indicators to “corruption pressures” and distort the process being measured) as “inaccurate and banal.” It is neither. Studies of both private and public organizations are replete with examples of reliance on easily measured indicators subverting the real aim of that oversight. Mr. Carey seems to get hung up on the word “corruption,” but “distortion” better describes the effect on choice under constrained resources.

There is no question that educators in the Atlanta Public Schools who willingly engaged in cheating have moral, if not legal, responsibility for their actions. On the other hand, the investigator’s report makes clear that teachers who tried to blow the whistle on this behavior were punished instead.

The real problem is that standardized tests are only simplified indicators of a much more complicated underlying process: educating productive citizens. Cheating aside, high-stakes testing leads educators to focus solely on what is tested and give short shrift to everything else – whether they wish to or not.

Steven J. Norton
Executive Director
Michigan Parents for Schools

Other reporting on the Atlanta investigation:

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