Whatever the final outcome of the investigation into allegations of cheating on state-mandated tests for two consecutive years at University Preparatory Charter High School in East Oakland that led to the resignation of its director, Isaac Haqq, one thing is certain: The wrongdoing was altogether predictable, although not for the reasons being widely circulated in the community.
While lax oversight of the school undoubtedly played a role in the scandal, the cause is more fundamental. More than 30 years ago, Donald Campbell, an eminent social scientist, warned about the danger of measuring effectiveness by a single influential metric. The more any quantitative indicator is used for decision-making, he said, the more subject it will be to corruption and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor.
The use of high-stakes testing is precisely the kind of process that Campbell's Law unwittingly foresaw. When attention is focused on standardized test scores to the exclusion of other factors in evaluating educational quality, the stage is ideally set for unethical behavior. Uprep, however, is not alone. And neither are charter schools.
In 1969, what was then called the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare wanted to increase reading and math scores for some 300 junior high and high school students in Texarkana, Ark. The district was under intense pressure to desegregate its schools and close the achievement gap between black and white students.
The district made the federal government an offer it couldn't refuse. Under a program called performance contracting, federal funds would be returned for students who failed to pass at a stipulated level. The experiment provided incentives for administrators, teachers and students. The initial evaluation was truly remarkable. Students averaged gains of more than two grade levels in reading and one in math after only 48 hours of instruction. But the miracle in Texarkana turned out to be the result of cheating on the high-stakes tests being used. Nevertheless, in the belief that what happened in Texarkana was an anomaly, the idea moved on to 18 other cities in the state. The lack of results there eventually put an end to performance contracting.
Fast forward to the No Child Left Behind Act, which became law in 2002. With so much riding on a single measure, corruption was bound to flourish under Campbell's Law. In fact, since 2004, at least 123 public schools in California alone have been identified as engaging in cheating on standardized tests required by No Child, according to a Chronicle review of documents. In about two-thirds of the cases, schools admitted their guilt. While the number represents a small fraction of the state's 9,468 public schools, it still is cause for deep concern.
Cheating can take many subtle forms. Administrators have pushed out struggling students from their schools by encouraging them to enroll in continuation classes, or have advised them to stay home on testing day because they constitute a liability. The pressure to post high scores on the closely watched tests is greater than ethical considerations.
Campbell's Law also shows up in higher education, when researchers fabricate or manipulate data in order to get tenure or receive lucrative grants, and in business, when top management cooks the books to boost the company's price in order to inflate the value of their stock options.
In fact, the law is so ubiquitous that it's surprising it hasn't garnered more attention. That's likely to change in the years ahead, however, as high-stakes tests continue to be viewed as the gold standard of accountability. One way to resist this trend and minimize Campbell's Law is to bear in mind Albert Einstein's prescient words: "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted." This caveat won't eliminate cheating entirely, but it provides the rationale for reconsidering the nation's insular approach to educational quality.
Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.