Cheating on testing and teaching to the test are both wrong! The former is illegal and the latter is educationally fraudulent. As long as teachers and schools are evaluated on the basis of student achievement on standardized tests, the temptation to commit these "crimes" lurks in the air. The recent revelations of these crimes throughout the country -- especially in Atlanta -- should be signal enough that an alternative assessment must be found.
Through the "Race to the Top" grants, Washington has been encouraging the use of student achievement on standardized tests as the measure of teacher effectiveness. Yet because of the many factors -- beyond the teachers' effectiveness -- that influence student achievement -- not the least of which is home support -- this metric should be used sparingly as it is being proposed in New York State, where only 20 percent of the evaluation of mathematics and literacy teachers' assessment will be based on statewide tests. Teachers of subjects such as art, music, physical education and even social studies and foreign language instruction are de facto omitted in this assessment arrangement.
One of the first indicators of the testing significance occurred in New York State in 2003, when it was mandated that students had to pass the Math-A Regents examination in order to receive a high school diploma. So many students failed that a blue-ribbon panel, of which I was a member, was immediately established by Commissioner Richard Mills to study the situation and make recommendations. Aside from the fact that we found the test to be quite faulty and the results were then essentially disregarded, we found that there wasn't enough guidance provided to teachers by the standards. Although a second committee, of which I was again a member, created new and more useful standards, the word was out that "survival" for teachers and schools rested with student test results. This very much increased the "teaching to the test" syndrome -- a practice that by most measures is educationally unsound.
There are a number of options to avoid these "crimes." Tests can be used solely for evaluating student achievement and not that of teachers or schools; or tests for assessing educational effectiveness should be constructed in such a fashion that the test items cannot be anticipated by the teachers, thus avoiding teaching to the test and that the scoring be done external to the school, thereby removing the opportunity for cheating.
We could also avoid the pressure of testing by creating an alternative to "testing" as a measure of the educational program. Principals and teachers could be assessed by independent professionals. This is how universities and their various divisions are assessed.
To avoid one person's preconceived notion as to what effective teaching is, school districts or states ought to create small groups of peers -- experienced teachers, not necessarily from the same school -- who would evaluate their colleagues in the school. As a matter of fact, the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland has for the past 11 years evaluated teachers with their Peer Assistance and Review program (PAR), where a panel of eight teachers and eight principals evaluate teachers and can fire those whom they deem incompetent. A panel such as this -- one supported by the teacher union -- is quite likely to provide an acceptable level of objectivity.
As we strive to maximize the effectiveness of our schools, we still need to define the traits of a good principal and teacher and develop ways to measure them, just as we do -- often subconsciously -- when we evaluate lawyers, and doctors. Then we need to establish a panel of evaluators that would minimize any prejudices that could both negatively or positively affect the assessment of a teacher. If this is done right, then there should be a very positive correlation between teacher effectiveness and students' scores on standardized tests, minimizing the use of test results to evaluate instruction and then sharply reducing the counter-educational practice of "teaching to the test," and not to mention cheating!
Finally, as the chief indicators of an effective school, principals and teachers need to be treated as professionals, assessed professionally, and have their position earned on the basis of true merit. This will take the teaching profession to higher levels, encourage the brightest candidates to seek the profession, and, above all, provide us with a stronger educational program.