Burke: Test cheating rooted in centralization

About 178 Atlanta schoolteachers have been implicated in a highly publicized cheating scandal, involving almost half of the district’s public schools. Allegations of cheating have also surfaced in Philadelphia and other districts across the country.

While many have been quick to point a finger at tests, the real culprit is the pressure created by the politicization and centralization of education.

Central planning doesn’t work, and education is no exception. As the federal role in education has ballooned over the last 45 years, teachers and administrators have become increasingly focused on the demands that come attached to the money coming from Washington. The $50 billion spent by the Department of Education each year is filtered through well over 100 programs, each with its own reporting requirements, and each with pages upon pages of regulations.

This means teachers’ focus is on providing data to the Department of Education, instead of information to parents about their child’s performance in school.

The federal role in education has been growing dramatically since 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But the act’s eighth reauthorization — No Child Left Behind — for the first time prescribed how often and in what subjects states would be required to test students.

Moreover, NCLB requires that all students be proficient in reading and math by the year 2014, a fast-approaching deadline. And schools are feeling the federal heat. For those who fall short, sanctions will be imposed by the Department of Education.

Tests are a good tool when used to provide accountability in the right direction — to parents and taxpayers, not to bureaucrats in Washington. It’s the latter misdirection of accountability that creates the perverse incentives we’re seeing at work in the cheating scandals.

For an example of tests and accountability put to proper use, look to Florida. Florida has rigorous state tests tied to a transparent grading system for schools and districts, and it has seen more progress than any other state at increasing academic achievement for all students while narrowing achievement gaps.

The Sunshine State’s effective reforms were the result of state-level action under the leadership of Gov. Jeb Bush, not because of NCLB. The reforms succeeded because the state understands that educational accountability should be to parents and taxpayers.

Florida’s system, which grades schools and districts on an A-F scale based on performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, provides clear information to parents, is well-reported in the media, and puts fire under the feet of local schools.

Which is why the Obama administration’s push for a swift reauthorization of NCLB is so ill-advised. NCLB would maintain arduous requirements for teachers and administrators to provide aggregate data that is far more useful to bureaucrats — for applying sanctions or funding distribution — than to parents. It’s the type of data collection that absorbs literally millions of hours each year on the part of school and state leaders.

President Obama is also pushing for states to adopt national standards and tests — a proposal ripe for politicization and problematic on a content level. Both a ninth reauthorization of NCLB and implementation of national standards and tests would double-down on reporting requirements to the federal government and increase Washington’s role in education to unprecedented new levels.

If that growth occurs, we’re likely to see more instances of schools and states trying to game a system where teachers and principals are more concerned with how they comply with federal requirements than how they serve their students.

But if a new federal approach is undertaken, educational decision-making authority could be rightfully restored to state and local leaders. Conservatives in Congress, led by Rep. John Kline (R., Minn.), who chairs the Education and the Workforce Committee, are offering to eliminate and consolidate ineffective and duplicative programs, and to provide flexibility with how states and school districts can use federal funds.

There are also proposals on the table such as the A-PLUS approach, which would let states opt out of the many programs operated under NCLB, and direct their federal education funding to those education areas most in need.

Instead of continuing to strap teachers and school leaders with burdensome reporting requirements to the government, schools should be freed to focus on being accountable to parents, who have the most at stake in their child’s education.

Lindsey Burke is an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation (www.Heritage.org).