Jonathan Chait can be a very annoying person. Today, he wrote an article about the Atlanta school cheating scandal, Teachers Cheating on Tests: Not a Big Deal. His argument is that cheating is found in every area where people wish to excel, therefore we shouldn’t use this scandal as a reason to abandon our test-focused education system. Well, that’s true as far as it goes. But maybe the cheating is a sign of a more fundamental problem with our educational system.
Chait takes specific target at Eugene Robinson’s article in yesterday’s Washington Post, The Racket with Standardized Test Scores. Just in terms of a hit piece, Chait is way off base. He starts by trivializing Robinson’s article. He ends by weaseling out of the argument he made throughout his article, “But minimizing cheating is a terrible top priority. The top priority should be teaching students better.” Oh really?! So he didn’t mean all those words that he wrote about cheating being inevitable and needing to minimize that cheating rather than minimizing the use of standardized tests? He just wants students to be taught better. As opposed to Robinson who, what? Wants students taught worse? This is by far the worst article I have ever read by the generally reliable Jonathan Chait.
As Robinson points out, the problem is that those controlling our education system have become enamored with testing. He even quotes education reporter Valerie Strauss on this subject that we don’t know just how big this kind of cheating is. “What we do know is that these cheating scandals have been a result of test-obsessed school reform.” Listening to Chait, you would think that no such thing exists and that the fact that states can design their own standardized tests means they are somehow tailored to different communities. Think about that for a moment: are the students in East Los Angeles and Palm Springs the same? As I recall, they are not only in the same state, they are located quite near each other.
The emphasis of bureaucrats on test scores a good example of non-leadership. By quantifying something that cannot be easily quantified, using simplistic meters, people can claim to be approaching education in an objective form without doing anything at all. In this case, they create an almost random metric and then dump the task on local schools to improve student scores on the metric. It isn’t fair, but more important, it isn’t effective.
Jonathan Chait seems like someone who has eagerly drunk the education “reform” Kool-Aid. The truth is that whether test scores are going up or going down, educational attainment is not. That’s what we should be worried about. Instead, we place teachers and administrators in a ridiculous situation that does students no good at all. He’s right that these cheating scandals aren’t a reason for abandoning our test-focused educational “reform.” We have plenty of better reasons than that. But his almost hysterical attack on Robinson and lame defense of testing is a perfect example of what is stopping us to genuinely improving education.
I recommend checking out Fair Test, a group that is fighting against our failed test-centered approach to teaching. They have an excellent FAQ, What’s Wrong With Standardized Tests? Check it out; it’s an eye-opener.