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Philadelphia School Cheating Scandal Reveals Future of High-Stakes Testing

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Right now, according to Fox News, over 100 educators in Philadelphia are under investigation for allegedly tampering with students' standardized test responses. These 138 teachers and principals are on the chopping block and three elementary school principals were fired on Thursday, with investigators originally being alerted to possible cheating in 2009. Unfortunately, the scandal in Philadelphia, similar to a previous cheating scandal in Atlanta, reveals the future of public education if high-stakes standardized testing continues to be the norm.

Teachers and administrators are under the gun to improve students' test scores, often with little help or guidance from states. Politicians want better education statistics and demand that superintendents make it so. Superintendents order their principals to make it so. Principals, in turn, put the squeeze on classroom teachers. Teachers and principals worry about losing their jobs if, when the test scores come back, scores have not improved over last year's or met a certain threshold.

So, to keep their jobs, what do these educators do? Lie and cheat. Even those who do not cheat in regard to the answers may cheat in regard to study materials, doing too much to help students prepare for the tests. When teachers are pitted against each other in cutthroat competition, ethical lines often get crossed. As a high school teacher who teaches Advanced Placement classes I know the pressure: My students' AP scores are compared to students' AP scores at the other high school across town. My counterpart is a skilled veteran of the classroom and teaching the subject, while I am a novice.

To improve my students' AP test scores I could resort to "drill and kill" tactics and eschew all normal classwork in favor of practice AP testing. I could give students copies of recent AP tests to take home and memorize. Fortunately, at least for me, the pressure is not that great. But it could be soon.

Standardized tests are not a bad thing and some, longstanding tests such as the SAT, ACT, and AP exams, can be an invaluable tool. When teachers are pitted against each other and are blamed for student performance the tests have become bad things. When teachers must "teach to the test" the tests have become bad things. If we are not careful, the Philadelphia and Atlanta cheating scandals will spread closer to home: Houston, Dallas...here?

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