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Robert Tobias

A simmering scandal in Atlanta over cheating on standardized tests came to a head this week as state investigators released a report that found in the city’s schools “an enterprise where unethical—and potentially illegal—behavior pierced every level of the bureaucracy,” according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The scandal follows closely on the heels of a USA Today investigation into possible cheating in the Washington, D.C. schools. The Hechinger Report talked with Robert Tobias, director of the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, and former head of assessment and accountability for the New York City schools, about whether high-stakes testing inevitably leads to cheating, and how it might be avoided.

Hechinger Report: There have been two major stories this year about cheating, there was the USA Today series including the reports on cheating in D.C., and now there’s the Atlanta scandal. What do you think went wrong?

Tobias: First of all, this is not the first time we’ve had cheating scandals. You can go back to New York City, back in the late 90s, where we had a pretty major cheating scandal. In many ways it’s not surprising, because of the current emphasis on high-stakes accountability using standardized tests, and standardized tests almost exclusively. It almost encourages some people to do the wrong thing. So as you kick the stakes up, people are going to focus on the metrics that will be used to determine their fate. They’ll be looking for ways to elevate those metrics, and some people will try to take a short route.

HR: Given that, is cheating inevitable now?

Tobias: I’m not going to say it’s inevitable, but you’re increasing the motivation and the probability for this kind of thing to occur.

HR: Is there a way to use testing to judge schools and teachers, without having cheating as an outcome?

Tobias: It would be idealistic to believe that we would have a system that focuses on only on improving, using data for teacher improvement and student improvement. As long as you require accountability – and I don’t think accountability is a bad thing, I think you have to have accountability – but as long as the accountability is going to be so heavily dominated by testing, and that coupled with targets and goals that in many cases are unrealistic, that encourages cheating. If teachers and administrators believe that the system has established standards that are just unattainable, and their futures are determined by those standards, it leads them to seek ways to beat the system. Cheating is one of those ways.

HR: What would your ideal system look like for accountability?

Tobias: Certainly it has to have multiple components. At the level of the teacher, and teacher effectiveness, you have a movement now to base the determination of teacher effectiveness on value-added test performance, and that’s all based on standardized tests. To me, that is not only narrowing the curriculum, but that’s the kind of system that creates an atmosphere where more cheating will occur.

If instead you have an accountability system that has multiple components, standardized tests as part of that system, but in addition to that, teacher observations, analysis of student work, teacher self-portraits and reflections, so multiple components to evaluate a teacher, and those multiple components [are] used to identify ways to provide supports for the teacher, professional development, to assign coaches, ways to focus on improving teacher performance and effectiveness – that’s the kind of system that would, I think, reduce the incentive to cheat. It creates a whole different culture and atmosphere in a school.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

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Sarah Garland oversees editorial planning and budgeting, edits K-12 stories and manages editorial partnerships with other news outlets. She has worked at Hechinger since 2010, and before that wrote about...

Letters to the Editor

9 Letters

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  1. We should be deeply appreciative for voices like Bob Tobias’s. He has worked for years for meaningful accountability. The current mania for standardized testing as the sole measure of teaching and learning is demoralizing committed teachers, constricting students’ horizons, and destroying schools. I urge people to subscribe to magazines such as “Rethinking Schools” and to come to the Save Our Schools rally and associated events in DC at the end of July.

  2. Dr. Tobias’s ideal model for accountability, with “standardized tests as part of that system . . . in addition to . . . teacher observations, analysis of student work, teacher self-portraits and reflections,” is wonderful. But it begs a question. Tobias’s model implies funding to staff, and train the people who will arrive this nuanced portrait of the effectiveness of teachers and supervisors and the curricula they use in the classrooms and schools. Unfortunately, this model is being recommended at a time when states and municipalities and the US Congress are all seeking ways to cut funding. In a pure business environment, a bare-bones test scores driven model just looks leaner and cheaper.

  3. Thank heavens for Bob Tobias’ wisdom and clarity. If only the policymakers in Washington and Albany were listening to him, we would be spared future cheating scandals.

  4. “In many ways it’s not surprising, because of the current emphasis on high-stakes accountability using standardized tests, and standardized tests almost exclusively. It almost encourages some people to do the wrong thing. ”

    Ahhh… these unprofessional cheaters have a justifiable reason, and therefore we should view them as victims.

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