Two large cheating scandals have re-opened the discussion about the impact of standardized testing and high-stakes and accountability. Both Philadelphia and Atlanta have reported cheating: in Philadelphia to help students cope with and be successful on tests; and in Atlanta with administrators accused of actually changing student test answer sheets. Previously this year, Washington D.C. schools under Chancellor Michelle Rhee were accused of widespread cheating on state tests. This is not what school reform is about. Clearly, some balance is called for so that test scores do not trump every other educational consideration.
While it is unclear whether federal policy will change anytime soon—ESEA is still not reauthorized and the No Child Left Behind provisions, while the subject of possible waivers, have not been amended—it is clear that someone needs to dust off the moral compass and return to sanity about student testing and learning. The mantle in most cases falls to the school principal.
So what should principals do to encourage a school culture of accountability and ethical behavior? Several things come to mind. First, the principal must model and demand honesty and integrity in testing and reporting results for students. Even if administrators find themselves in a system that seems to have unreasonable expectations, school faculty needs to take the high road in school testing. Second, the conversation in school should be about student learning first and foremost: what do our students need to learn to be prepared to college and career, and how do we know they are learning what they need to be prepared? State assessments are one piece of the puzzle that is student achievement but are limited because they are a snapshot in time, unless the state requires a cumulative portfolio of student work. Therefore, school faculty needs to be diligent about collecting multiple sources of student achievement data, and involving students in the process as well, so they have a sense of their own accomplishment and areas for improvement. Third, the principal needs to lead purposeful efforts to problem-solve ways to improve student learning, engaging staff in ongoing self-assessment and bringing resources to bear on school improvement. Schools are too often the target of outside mandates when what is needed is the ability to develop solutions from within based on the school’s individual context.