“Michelle Rhee’s reign of error”: Does overreliance on testing encourage teachers to cheat?


by Tim Reed

The release of confidential memos showing that Michelle Rhee, Students First founder and CEO and former Chancellor of DC Public Schools, was made aware of widespread cheating on standardized tests as early as 2009 but made no attempt to discipline the cheaters, is prompting parents and educators to take a second look at public schools’ overreliance on standardized testing. While only a single teacher was let go for cheating, Rhee fired more than 600 teachers for low test scores, sending a strong message that her priority was higher test scores at any cost.

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When educators and administrators are forced to focus on test scores — often those of students they don’t even teach — they are placed in a position where they have no choice but to sacrifice individual student learning and take a “teach to the test” approach in order to meet arbitrary standards. Educators, students, and parents all know that students are not one-size-fits-all, and forcing all students to take the same standardized tests can be detrimental to special education students and English language learners. It also leads to decreased learning for all students as differentiated learning is sacrificed in the name of high scores above all else.

This overreliance on testing forces teachers to focus simply on teaching to those students whose test scores may improve, leaving behind those with no chance to pass, and ignoring those who are operating above grade level. Recently, we have seen a spate of protests from parents, educators and students across the country who are speaking out against the dangers of standardized tests, and calling for a return to student-centered learning.

Texas testing protestEducators know that focusing on the individual is the best way to encourage true learning, and that students, parents and educators deserve high-quality, teacher-developed assessment tools. Demands from educators, parents, students and concerned citizens to return to these basic values will encourage administrators like Rhee to focus on punishing the cheaters, rather than educators who are simply trying to educate each and every one of their students.

You can get involved in this movement by rating the assessments your students are required to take at Teach Plus’ Assessment Advisor. Your comments on these tests will help administrators and elected officials make decisions on which tests are truly valuable to help student learning. Off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all tests have to go, and educator voices will lead the charge in this debate.

Reader Comments

  1. Is anyone surprised that there would be cheating when the pressure is so great, both in DC and in Georgia?

    I don’t approve of what is done, but when pressure is that great there is bound to be cheating, especially since these tests don’t serve much of a purpose other than to browbeat teachers and other school people.

    Better to have an assessment system that truly measures learning, not just the ability to answer low-level multiple choice tests and that doesn’t put unrealistic pressure on schools.

  2. “Students first.”

    Shouldn’t that maxim apply to testing.

    So here’s my challenge. On the high school level, let’s cancel all the brain-dead, boring, irrelevant tests. Instead, let’s create a student-centered form of assessment. Let’s have students write about the individual who has exerted the most positive influence in their lives.

    Let’s see how many students identify a teacher. Let’s see how many students identify Michelle Rhee.

    Do I need to tell you what the results would be? Such a test certainly would speak volumes about the current craze in educational reform.

  3. Michelle Rhee claims to be an “educational reformer.” However, she relies on a testing format that hasn’t changed since I took the Iowa State tests when I was in the 7th grade – back in 1958.

    Imagine. We are in the age of computers and iPads, but we are using the same means of educational assessment that was used in 1958. Remember? The hit song was “Wake Up Little Suzy.” The great technological advancement was the portable manual typewriter. And telephones still had two-letters prefixes with curious Anglo-Saxon names.

    Please, can we get with the times?

    If we must assess students by testing, let’s put the tests on computers in the form of popular video games. Students can then rack up points for correct answers. Since students are getting their scores immediately, schools can devise all sorts of tournaments, challenges, and competitions.

    Teachers can even join in the fun by dressing up as coaches, cheerleaders, or characters from popular video games. Rather than having students fall asleep during testing, we can have them sitting on the edge of their seats.

    Why can’t we make testing exciting, relevant, and fun?

    Michelle Rhee’s reliance on stupid answer sheet tests merely proves that she, like every other educational reformer, is brain dead. Rather than firing teachers, let’s fire the entire current generation of educational reformers.

  4. I retired in 2007 after spending a life-time teaching in a public high school located in a neighborhood that earned its nickname – the Killing Fields.

    My students did not give a rat about standardized tests. They don’t provide college scholarships. They don’t guarantee college admissions. No employer looks at test scores – neither does any coach for the NBA. I couldn’t use test scores as part of my final grade because the students didn’t receive their test scores until the following year. By that time, they had forgotten all about the tests.

    Standardized tests amounted to boring, sterile academic exercises that had as much relevance to the daily lives of my students as a war between cockroaches on one of the moons of Uranus.

    I might add that in my former ‘hood, students were far more worried about getting home safely than they were about standardized test scores.

    Standardized tests were a waste of my time and the taxpayers’ money.

  5. Please read the Voices of Change Blog published on the OEA website that explored how Rhee may be guilty of the same things the Atlanta superintendent is, yet the Education Department refused to investigate allegations of misconduct. Teachers were caught in the DC public schools erasing test scores as well by a newly hired principal who was pretty much drummed out of the district when no one would listen to her. She has since filed a law suit.


  6. Michelle Rhee is nothing more than a hack for those who want to privatize education. I was a special education teacher; I was certified in most every areas of education including supervision of special ed programs, and I received a masters in diagnostic and remedial reading. I worked with excellent teachers–yes, there were a few who were inadequate, and there should have been a team of peers, parents, union reps, and administrators to remove them,. That’s the way, in my opinion, to rid the system of those who are not qualified. But the privatizers never talk about those in the administration positions, those horrendous administrators who went into that part of the education system only to avoid being with children–those administrators who suffered from paranoia that teachers were out to get them, often firing the best or not giving them tenure because they fear they might become part of strong teacher groups.

    The charter schools take public money, make exorbitant profits, and have no accountability. We don’t know what they’re teaching, how much they’re making, they’re a means of busting unions, and not leaving teachers with safety nets in their retirements.. But those on top are making tons of money with our tax dollars. Only half their teachers have to be certified. Their results are no better than the public schools

    I was not only a teacher, but after retirement, I also supervised teachers, helped run the reading program at my university, and talk teachers how to teaching reading to their students. It turns out that many of the universities refuse to put inadequate teachers under supervision or remediation. They’re pushed through the system–it’s easier that way, but the universities are never mentioned as part of the problem. Many of my student teachers had to learn how to spell and write before I could even begin to teach them how to instruct children. Many didn’t have the skills. So where’s the university responsibility. There seems to be none.

    However, Miss Rhee, Emanuel, the Kochs, Murdochs, Gates, Bloombergs, Zucherbergs, and all the other groups that have as their goal the privatization of the public school system are not accountable to anyone. Only half the teachers need to be certified. Chicago is closing public schools, doubling up students in other schools, and pushing charters. It’s wrong–it’s corporate–and so is Miss Rhee. These schools don’t have to worry about the idiotic No Child Left Behind mandate–teaching to the test. And the Bush family who essentially started this whole mess and in a total conflict of interest, were selling the Bush family reading programs to the schools, particularly in the south, making a profit while George Jr. pushed NCLB.

    The media pushes all the problems on to the teachers because they’re corporate and they too would like to end collective bargaining. We need a strong public school system from pre-K through college, not charters (which are different from magnets). Until we educate all our children, we will continue to fall farther and farther behind as the privatizers work toward making this once-great country a third-world country just for the sake of their profits. They won’t pay taxes, using every loophole they can must in the state and federal government, but they’re more than willing to take what’s left of the tax dollars to gorge themselves on more and more money at the top.

    1. Thank you, Sharon, for enlightening me about the problem. It is worse than I thought but I agree with you on all your statements. Teachers cannot spell nor write. Teachers become administrators when they could not even teach. Bad teachers = bad administrators unable to run their schools properly.
      Only in America, we do the craziest things that is not in the best interest of our children, our future.

  7. This is just a way to blow smoke up America’s rear end. Multiple choice test scores are an easy way to sift through millions of kids. It’s easier to do that, instead of fixing the real causes of inequity. A hungry kid can’t learn. An abused kid can’t learn.

  8. “I was just following orders” is not a justification for immoral behavior, unless perhaps the realistic threat of literal loss of life or serious physical injury is clearly evident and there is truly no realistic alternative course of action. If a professional educator chooses to engage in such behavior in the context of high-stakes consequences for self and/or others, revocation of certification is appropriate. If laws might have been broken, this should be reported to and investigated by proper authorities.

    Is there evidence to pursue administrative and/or legal actions re: Michelle Rhee’s conduct in DC? If so, where is her “immunity” from consequences coming from?

  9. Michelle Rhee is a “quitter” and all about herself. If not, she would have stayed in Washington DC and see “her results”! I disliked the press circus of highlighting her as a “radical”. As an educator , I have sat and heard the humiliating harangue of administrators telling us that we have not done “enough”. Ah! And we haven’t received a raise in 5 years and our classes had seen a “raise” of students. Yes! There are many things that need fixing, beginning with our testing!!!

  10. Michelle Rhee is miserable and a liar. She is only out for attention and has nothing positive to say. I cancelled my subscription to Oprah magazine after she had her on.

  11. I do not believe teacher reliance on test scores personally “encourage” them to cheat. I think a better term to address this issue is that many teachers feel they are or have been “forced” to cheat by either directly or indirectly manipulating state test answers to improve scores. I believe teachers have been or are afraid they will be repremanded for not complying to the dermands of their administrators where testing is concerned. Many teachers have already been verbally humiliated, placed on corrective action plans, or lost their jobs because of test scores. Many state education departments seem to believe that every child can perform at the same level academically. Common sense should tell you this is not possible. Children are as different as day and night. Yes, all children can learn and deserve to be given the opportunity to do so to the best of their ability, but do our state testing systems accurately measure what a child has learned from one grade level to the next? To truely determine whether a child is or is not improving academically, measure their academic “growth” from year to year. If they show growth no matter how small, then they are learning and most likely their teachers and parents, yes, I include parents because they have a huge vested interest in how their children perform at school, are doing their jobs. If they do not show growth, then intervene to identify the problem. Oh! I forgot! Many schools do not have the abiltiy to challenge high performing students or intervene with those who are struggling any longer due to state and federal budget cuts. They have to attend school in buildings that borderline being condemned, have fewer teachers and instructional assistants, more students per classroom, and less money to purchase current technology, instructional supplies, updated textbooks, and the list goes on. If you really have children’s best interest in mind, then don’t cut funding for their education? Not only is the state testing system flawed and cost millions of dollars, it does not accurately measure a child’s academic growth or needs and it is a huge financial burdon on the already struggling taxpayer as is the unnessary and out of control government spending we are facing in this country.

  12. i appreciate the article’s criticism towards Michelle Rhee for her mistakes in using high-stakes testing. The criticism is justified! I just do not agree that Michelle Rhee ( and by extension every single corporate reformer) can be accused of overreliance on high-stakes testing. The unavoidable and precise accusation must stem from the fact that Ms. Rhee and the reformers knew that this new condition of attaching a series of rewards and punishments to the test scores inevitably incites corruption at every level. In order to save themselves from humiliation or loss of income, students, teachers, administrators, and everyone whose image and livelihood depend on scores will act improperly.
    This corruptible nature of high-stakes testing in not a surprise to statisticians and social scientists. They have known about the Campbell’s law for decades : “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 monitor.” No mention of “rewards and punishments.”
    In his 1976 paper, Campbell also wrote that ”achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.”
    In closing, describing the horrible situation created by Michelle Rhee’s use of high-stakes testing as the result of “mistakes” in scoring or the misconduct of some educators does not accurately assess her exact role. Campbell’s law is as much as law as the Newton’s law of gravity. Would anyone fly on a plane built by engineers that disregard Newton’s law? Would you believe that Michell Rhee did not know?
    Who wins, who loses, who cares?
    In solidarity,
    Sergio Flores

  13. As an older, mature adult, working as a ParaEducator, and pursuing my education to be a future teacher as my last career, I find all the politics of the teaching profession to be loathsome and anxiety inducing for all of America.
    While our children keep falling behind the rest of the world in test scores, we continue to rely on tests, yet the root cause of low test scores seems to be ignored.
    Federal and State governments, and Local school boards, seem to keep scrambling to “re-invent the wheel” every year, and the results are dismal failures.
    As a society, we keep allowing students to use cell phones in schools, and parents neglect to work with their children at home, on the childs homework, and the kids themselves are apathetic and defiant…..
    So, we blame the teachers for low test scores ?
    The biggest problems I see as a teacher assistant, is that cell phones are allowed in schools. There is absolutely no reason why teenagers should have cell phones in school. Period. Toys, Guns, Knives, and other items are not allowed in schools, so why are cell phones allowed in schools?
    Parents are failing to parent their kids and help them with their homework. If the parent is not impressing on the child, the critical need to learn, then how is the child going to be motivated to learn?
    This is not rocket science.
    The Federal Government needs to GET OUT of the Education business period.
    Education is a STATE and LOCAL program.
    Congress needs to dissolve the department of Education because the mandates are impossible to manage, when kids have cell phones, and parents don’t have time for their kids, and school districts and states are begging for federal money every year….
    Michael Gary
    Vancouver, WA

  14. I am a high school teacher. The tests scores at my high school are good (AIMS-Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards). That being said, I feel that emphasis on deep learning is being lost and the educational system has geared over to teaching to the test. This test prep takes away from time teachers could use to design lessons that encourage students to apply material in a personal and meaningful way with a high level of rigor. I don’t think the testing should go away, but I feel that it should not be used a punitive metric. Schools with lower socioeconomic status tend to suffer under this model, which I feel is patently unfair and counterproductive.

  15. Who in their right mind would think that NO teacher would be tempted to cheat when salaries, notariety and other benefits for teachers are tied to the “best” scores?? Educators are no different than anyone else; they can be swayed into unprofessional acts by “bribery.” All across the country there are test scandals where teachers, acting alone or under orders from their principal, are altering test score sheets. When a teacher refuses, they are bullied out of the profession and other, more “beholden,” teachers are put in their place. Look at Texas where this testing insanity started. Testing scandal after testing scandal. Educators with low morals are in prison where they belong but most get away with it and actually get bonuses from their cheating. Just like Wall Street. Rhee should be taken to task for her complicity in the cheating scandal just as any educator should be. We are supposed to be the positive example for our students, not the poster children for cheating.

    1. I am a teacher. I think Michelle Rhee is pure evil when it comes to how little she really cares for public school children. She’s “in it” to make money.I wish you would allow people to share these great articles on FaceBook. There’s never a “share option”…

    2. The nature of teaching-learning shifted when NCLB imposed high-stakes testing. the civic values that guided public education have been crowded out by the market based values, as Profr. Michael Sandell from Harvard has explained. High-stakes testing is the new condition that has bred corruption at every level. This phenomenon is known as the Campbell’s law.
      Michelle Rhee, and every highly educated corporate reformer must have know about it. In an arbitrarily unfair system, when livelihood and reputation are on the line in an arbitrary and unjust system, “morals” take a back seat to survival. The real and only culprits are the ones who set up a fraudulent system. They are destroying the character of the people subjected to the unfair system as well as invalidating the information that the system is supposed to provide.
      I believe that teachers all are to blame for the mess public education is in right now –We are culprits for complying with frauds and going along with the perpetrators of this hig-stakes testing hoax.

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