Test Score Tampering as Predictable Outcome: Campbell's Law Strikes Again

Test Score Tampering as Predictable Outcome: Campbell's Law Strikes Again

Allegations of test score tampering at DC public schools? If you know Campbell's Law, you saw this coming...

Today's Washington Post reports that a new “Frontline” television documentary to be broadcast Tuesday (1/8/13) will explore allegations of test score tampering at an award-winning D.C. school. According to the WaPo article, student standardized test scores at several D.C. schools that made impressive gains under former Chancellor Michelle Rhee saw double-digit declines after test security was tightened out of concern about possible cheating. Beyond the predictable resulting theater of allegations and denial, charge and rebuttal lies another, more important predictable outcome: high-stakes testing results in gaming the system.

Allegations of test score tampering at DC public schools are simply the latest manifestation of Campbell's Law:

"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."

As Campbell's seminal paper Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change demonstrates, this adage applies to all social spheres. And as Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner argued in their (much more accessible) 2005 paper, this applies in particular to education; in fact, the corruption of indicators and educators through high-stakes testing is inevitable.

As Tony Picciano points out in a recent blog posting, this has been brewing for some time; during Michelle's Rhee's tenure at DCPS, there were allegations that high erasure rates were boosting standardized test scores.

These allegations join a long line of similar attempts to game the system in education, whether it's:

As Donald Campbell demonstrated almost 40 years ago, high-stakes indicators are "corruptible indicators," and so systems theory tells us that corruption is an inevitable outcome of high-stakes assessments. One thing we can safely predict: things like this will keep happening so long as there are high-stakes assessments in education.