Perverse Incentives

There has been plenty of hand-wringing over the current emphasis (okay, infatuation) with high-stakes testing. Teachers have complained that they feel forced to “teach to the test.” Educators have pointed out that subjects not being tested–art, music, civics–get short shrift, despite their undeniable value.

Less often noted is the incentive to “game the system”–the temptation of school administrators faced with less than satisfactory test results to fudge the numbers. To cheat.

This week, the Superintendent of Schools in El Paso, Texas, was sentenced for just such behavior.  According to news reports,

One charge stems from García directing six unindicted co-conspirators and others to fraudulently inflate student test scores so struggling schools would appear to meet federal accountability standards, which are based on 10th-grade state standardized exams.

The scheme involved school district employees changing grades from passing to failing to keep some students in ninth grade, holding Mexican transfer students in ninth grade regardless of their transcripts and implementing credit-recovery programs so intentionally retained students could catch up to their appropriate grade and graduate on time.

García received $54,000 in bonuses that were stipulated in his contract if the district did well on state and federal accountability standards.

 Most school officials, of course, don’t engage in such blatant law-breaking. Instead, they spin results. They play games calculated to make their performance look better. Here in Marion County, Dr. White’s administration has been particularly generous with so-called “waivers” that allow students to graduate without passing the mandatory tests; the administration has also seen a mysterious increase in students purportedly leaving the system to be “home schooled,” and thus not counted as drop-outs.

If we really are intent upon reforming the nation’s public schools, we need to revisit some foundational questions. What are the skills and attitudes we want our schools to provide? What can be measured by testing and what can’t? How should test results be used in assessing teacher performance? What safeguards do we need to put in place to insure that Superintendents and others aren’t gaming the system? How do we create rewards for good performance and honest reporting, and avoid providing perverse incentives that encourage cheating?

And perhaps the hardest question of all: how do we shift our resources and emphasis back to the all-important classroom and hardworking, dedicated teachers, and away from the bureaucrats concerned mainly with protecting their turf?

In an ideal world, non-teacher school system employees would see themselves as support staff, there to provide classroom teachers with resources and services they need in order to do the important job of actual instruction. Superintendents would not see themselves as important executives entitled to big bonuses when those teachers do well, but as ombudsmen of a sort, encouraging and enabling classroom success.

Someone needs to remind these guys they aren’t bankers.


  1. It would be great if the governors and state school superintendents didn’t game the system to insure schools fail so they could turn them over to their buddies who run charter school corporations. Rupert Murdoch and others are licking their chops about all the money ($500 billion in the U.S.) to be made from privatizing public schools.

  2. The folks at the top just can’t measure students enough. In some Hoosier schools and grades, up to 146 days of the 180 day school year are disrupted by standardized testing. At even one hour per test day, that accumulates to 6 weeks of lost instruction over the course of an elementary school year. The test makers are taking students and taxpayers to the cleaners at the expense of instruction.

    Testing and remediation are in the same state budget line item. The state pays for more tests by reducing funds for remedial instruction for those who need extra help. How could it be more perverse? We get much more bang for our educational buck by prioritizing teaching over testing. Taking a patient’s temperature more times won’t make him well.

    Local schools order and pay for some of that testing to defend themselves against misleading I-STEP scores. The only scores that count are other standardized test results.

    What’s misleading? Students who don’t understand academic English are nevertheless tested in English for years before they understand it. A Phillipine student with excellent math skills will fail English-only math tests, masking his real knowledge and punishing the student, teacher, and school for a faulty test design and result.

    We have a state-wide shortage of special ed. teachers but who in their right mind will teach slower learners if a teacher’s pay and continued employment rest on test scores? Schools with exceptional special ed. programs are now incented to trim their programming and proportion of special ed. students due to the impact special ed. students have on their
    school-wide scores.

    The state assigns A-F grades to schools based on a curve so that even if every Hoosier student scores an A on every test, the A minuses would be labeled failures and the A- school can then be taken over by the state and privatized to for-profit, out of state interests. By that method, a new batch of school buildings can be guaranteed to fail every year.

    Apparently that isn’t fast enough for State Supt. Bennett. He now wants to take over entire school districts. Local property taxpayers will still pay the bills on the buildings, repairs, equipment, and busses but will have no influence over the outsiders who run the ‘failing’ schools and funnel our tax dollars out of Indiana. Tony Bennett proposed legislation removing local school board authority PERMANENTLY unless the for-profit takeover company decided on its own to return the school to the local school board. Fortunately, Supt. Bennett’s fellow Republicans in the legislature couldn’t stomach that this election year and empaneled a Select Commission on Education to review the many things Tony Bennett is up to, but no Commission report is forthcoming before election day.

    I doubt the state’s appetite for control of local schools has ever been so great or so scary. With the STATE gaming the system to guarantee failures and takeovers, I fear local gaming of the system won’t be far behind.

    There is a ‘breath-of-fresh-air’ remedy in an award-winning educator – Glenda Ritz for State Superintendent. She led her school to adopt a new reading program which raised scores and won her school state and national awards. Best of all, kids are learning to love reading rather than to hate school and testing. Her approach will take Hoosier youth much farther than any combination of standardized tests, school failures, and state takeovers.

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