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High-stakes testing not the complete answer 

When Gwinnett County unveiled its Gateway standardized test in 1997, it was met with widespread criticism from teachers. Rather than serving as a meaningful tool for quantifying academic achievement, they argued, the test would likely result in students being drilled in rote facts in order to boost the all-important annual scores.

At the time, it was easy to dismiss the complainers as underachievers afraid to have their classroom effectiveness compared to their peers. A few years later, the state launched its own standardized exam, the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

Now, as the CRCT cheating scandal in Atlanta continues to unfold, there's reason to believe that many teachers who weren't complaining about high-stakes, high-pressure testing were busy changing their students' answers.

What's the best way to measure classroom success? Graduation rates? Teacher popularity? Students' future earnings? There are so many intangibles that contribute to a child's learning and later ability to deal with life's challenges that it's tempting to want to adopt an easy yardstick like a standardized test.

Certainly, standardized testing can be valuable in comparing school systems and even individual schools, but how you use that information is just as important as the raw data.

In Georgia and elsewhere, there's been an effort to make public schools more businesslike by introducing such "market forces" as competition, consumer choice and performance-based compensation. If schools are forced to compete for students in the same way retailers vie for customers, they'd have to raise their game, right? If an underperforming school risks losing funding for low test scores, similar to a company losing stock value for missing its quarterly projections, then it would get its act together, right? And if a teacher knows she'll nab a big, fat bonus if her students score high enough on the test, then she'd go the extra mile to make sure they're learning, right?

Either that — or you end up with an Enron scenario in which teachers and administrators conspire to cook the books so their schools come out ahead.

It's not just happening in Atlanta. Investigations in Texas, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nevada and Virginia are under way to look into cheating in school systems that placed extraordinary pressure on posting strong test results. When the score is all that matters, there exists a strong incentive to cheat.

But apart from that pitfall, the notion that schools and teachers should be more competitive with each other has serious flaws. Offering bonuses based on student test scores is likely only to provide good teachers an incentive to stay away from challenging jobs where their services might be needed most. And taking funding away from schools that struggle with a disadvantaged student population seems like a good way to guarantee failure.

The inherent problem with school competition is that it's not the underperforming schools that lose, but the most vulnerable kids.

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