Testing Problem … or Cheating Problem?

For the past decade, opponents of the accountability movement had crowed about the problems with testing and establishing student achievement-based metrics to determine the success, or lack there of, of our public schools.

When we learn of testing scandals such as those down in Atlanta, the finger is immediately pointed at the test itself.  Forget those educators who may have organized the erasure parties.  When we learn of cheating scandals such as those in NY, when high-performing students were paid to take the SAT for classmates, we again pointed at the test.  Oh, those poor students who re being overly stressed by being asked to take an SAT or ACT test to get into college.
The anti-testing forces have made their points clear.  Testing is bad.  Cheating proves it (as, it seems, does poor performance).  We can’t use tests to determine the effectiveness of a school, a teacher, or even a student.  We need to view each child holistically.  We need to let our students think and explore and do what they want to do and chase after rainbows and unicorns.
So how, exactly, does the latest from the Chicago Tribune fit into that anti-testing narrative?  For those who have missed it, John Keilman has a great piece on the impact of technology on cheating in the classroom.  
His lead?

Heloise Pechan’s heart rose when she read the essay one of her students, a seemingly uninterested high school sophomore, had turned in for a class assignment on “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The paper was clear, logical and well written — a sign, she thought, that she had gotten through to the boy.

Her elation passed quickly. What came next was suspicion.

Pechan, then substitute teaching at a McHenry County high school, went to Google, typed the paper’s first sentence (“Kind and understanding, strict but fair, Atticus Finch embodies everything that a father should be”) and there it was: The entire essay had been lifted from an online paper mill.

This piece actually provides a thoughtful reflection of the pros and cons of classroom technology, from the cheating that can come of it to the protections and checks it provides to ensure such cheating doesn’t happen.  
But it raises a very interesting question.  Do we have a testing problem, or do we really have a cheating problem?  After all, an essay on “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the perfect holistic evaluation, letting a student explore a topic in the way he or she wants, using critical thinking, reasoning, argument, and all of the other skills the anti-accountability movement has been preaching.  Yet we hear story after story about how paper mills, Wikipedia, and a host of other online sources have corrupted the five-paragraph essay.
At the same time, when we look at those states that have moved to online adaptive technology for their student assessments, we don’t hear a peep about alleged cheating or data fudging.  
Whether we like it or not, educational accountability is not heading for the exit.  Instead of attacking testing, we should be working to ensure that the assessments that are administered are of the highest quality, effectively measure the knowledge and skills of the students, and are used to tailor and improve instruction in the classroom.

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