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Punitive Testing is Educational Bullying

By August 18, 2011April 14th, 2022No Comments

Published by — Testing isn’t all bad, but punitive testing models are akin to bullying and don’t help kids in the end.

It wasn’t the tests that made the Atlanta teachers and principals go insane with cheating. But they did go insane.

Some teachers gathered at private homes for “changing parties,” presumably with snacks, drinks and chit chat, to ease the tedium of erasing and re-bubbling their kids’ answer sheets.

One principal wore latex gloves as she changed test scores, perhaps having watched so many TV crime shows she thought fingerprints would give her away, not suspiciously-huge jumps in her school’s achievement scores.

One school’s staff took turns creating pretexts to take the one super-honest teacher out of the building during testing so they could seat weak students near strong ones to make it easier for them to copy correct answers.

Such behavior is nuts.

Testing scandals have erupted more or less constantly over the years. Most recently, in D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Baltimore and elsewhere.

Tests are not the problem. Achievement results are just information. Reliable data is great. It shows us where successful innovation might be underway. It raises red flags, confirms good work, and anchors hunches that our latest strategies are working, or not. We’ll never improve education without hard information, and plenty of it.

No, the problem is the bullying. Bullying has become a unique characteristic of America’s education culture. Comply or be punished. Get your students to meet federal and state proficiency standards — or else. Failure can bring public humiliation, wholesale staff dismissals, or schools being closed down entirely. States lean on districts; districts on their administrators. The public and pundits snarl at teachers. Teachers try hard not to take it out on their students.

We’ve crossed a none-too-fine line between accountability – which we all want, without question – to bullying, plain and simple.

Threats, humiliation and punishment have never cultivated a thirst for learning, but our faith in punishment only grows stronger with train wrecks like the Atlanta scandal.

Of course cheating is inexcusable. But let’s see if we can’t put cheating in a bigger context. Let’s take a giant step across our own borders to other developed countries comparable to ours. Do they use tests to bully educators into compliance?


C.M. Rubin is writing a series of articles under the umbrella “In Search of Global Education” available here at EducationNews. In each piece, she interviews international education leaders and researchers from countries that out-score the pants off of our kids on international standardized tests.

She finds, for example, that Finland, the darling of the education world, has done away with national tests altogether. Finns are not fond of cutthroat competitiveness anyway. So, since their kids routinely kick butt in the international tests, they’d rather invest in helping kids learn the more Finnish values of cooperation and collaboration.

Over in New Zealand, Dr. Rosemary Hipkins, the distinguished Chief Researcher of Council for Educational Research, says, “If you have a high stakes/low trust model of accountability, then you’re in trouble before you begin, because teachers won’t feel safe enough to be innovative. If you don’t believe that your teachers are professionals and can try things out in different ways, then you are never going to change anything. So I put a system with a high trust and low stakes model of accountability at the top of the list.”

Our “high-stakes, low-trust” accountability system expects incompetence and wrong-doing, and roots it out with forensic zeal. But if innovation is the goal, any creative person will tell you that failure has to be an option, some of the time. New Zealand encourages academic success through experimentation, instead of trying to beat it out of educators and kids.

Australia requires its states to assess students in 8 “general capabilities.” Among those 8, right up there with literacy, numeracy and technological competence is “ethical behavior.” Australian schools explicitly teach the virtues and skills of an ethical person.

Americans, on the other hand, punish cheating and bullying without being explicit with kids or adults about the value of honesty or caring. Kids are expected to know how to do the right thing, with no one ever discussing what’s right until the rules are broken. At that point the righteous have a field day.

No one, certainly not me, disputes that consistently failing schools need immediate attention. But send an educational SWAT team out to the school to take a look first. Collect a full set of information. The tests are a red flag, not a diagnosis. Test scores are just measurements until digested and interpreted by human judgement.

I used to say that the fights between labor and management were like the basketball players getting into a huge brawl and letting the ball, the kids, roll off the floor. Now the fights have spread to every level of education. Officials are demanding retribution against the 178 Atlanta educators involved in the cheating, which is necessary, but how will it better serve the kids academically? A bigger financial investment in testing security – during these lean times – just improves the effectiveness of the bullying, but does little for ill-served children.

High-achieving countries, otherwise comparable to ours, seem far more caring about their kids than we do. Worst of all is that our punitive use of tests doesn’t even improve student achievement. It just makes people insane. I see bullying all over American education efforts. Is it only me?

Julia Steiny wrote the education column for the Providence Journal for 16 years. She is a freelance writer and consultant on data projects such as , RI’s school-accountability site and , an innovative data-analysis tool. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative. She blogs and can be reached for questions or comments at