Research shows student test scores are unstable and unreliable measures of teachers (Darling-Hammond, 2011). Also, when high stakes test are used to reward or punish, the process becomes vulnerable to misuses and abuses such as teaching to the tests, teaching test-taking strategies, neglecting what is not tested and cheating. The result will be that test scores will raise while real learning decreases.
These problems of corrupting and cheating around high stakes testing are more likely to grow if what is referred to as Campbell’s Law is true. Campbell wrote in 1976 that “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to measure” (p. 49). In this case, test scores, the quantitative social indicator, are being used for social decision-making concerning teachers, schools and teacher education programs which is resulting in corrupting pressure to raise the indicator scores which distorts and corrupts the educational processes and practices it was intended to measure.
Students and teachers are encouraged to “game” the system, by doing whatever they can to show academic gains without any actual learning related to the content. The most common form of gaming is to teach test-taking tricks, such as how to select the best answers, guess and answer according to the scoring rubric. In such high stakes situations, it is in the best interests of the schools and teachers to encourage their students to engage in permissible activities that do not increase real learning, but helps boost scores. As a result, test scores tend to rise every year for the first three to four years and then level off (Linn, 2000). Further research suggests this is the result of teaching to the test and is not supported by comparable gains on other similar achievement tests, such at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (Center on Education Policy, 2008).
Not only are schools and teacher encouraged to engage in such questionable practices, but so are politicians and policy makers. Several examples of states inflating their test scores have been exposed over the last two decades. In addition, other states have set very low cut scores to give the impression that the students in their state are doing well, when in fact they are not. What lessons are we teaching our young when our politicians, policy makers, superintendents, principals and teachers are pushed to such dishonest practices.
Some of these problems can be compared to the corporate, political and banking institutions and structures that place high premiums on short-term goals and reported profits to meet stockholder or constituent expectations. Enron is one example that might be illustrative of the damage of focusing on arbitrary standards and appearances without regard to moral principles. Through creative accounting and reporting, they were able to give the impression of being one of the world’s most profitable, effective and successful companies for several years, while they were just the opposite. They were able to report high earnings that were not real—they were not based on facts, but on appearances and manipulation of data. They spent their energy and money on creating the illusion of success rather than actually producing real accomplishments. We must remember that test scores do not equate to student learning or achievement (Ewing, 2011).
More recently, the financial institutions nearly caused the collapse of the world economic order through dishonest and self-serving practices. Many corporate and political leaders have been corrupted by material profits and self-interest. Leaders from some of these institutions have called for reform of education, primarily by using approaches, worldviews and motivations that have failed them and the society they are to serve. One of those ideas is merit pay, which we will discuss next.