Gaming the System

I was talking to a colleague of mine about the current accountability system that is used for public education in Texas, which I am sure is a lot like other systems around the country, and he mentioned something that stuck with me and made me think for a few days.  We were discussing how to educate principals on the accountability system and how to help principals improve their students’ performance.  My colleague was talking about how he was going over some data points and the principal asked a question about AP tests.  The principal wanted to know how the school could increase the number of students who take the AP assessments, without decreasing the percentage of students who pass the AP assessments.  My colleague called this “gaming the accountability system”.  I am sure that many other administrators have thought about this, how to get the most improvement on the accountability system with a specific strategy, or attempting to get “more bang for their buck”.  But is this what we want as educators and educational leaders?  Do we really want to settle on focusing on specific student populations, specific content areas, and specific assessments with the only goal of improving accountability scores?  It seems as if we as educators are setting our goals to meet standardized tests and accountability systems.  But is this why you got into education?  There is a reason that you can think of a favorite teacher, but not of a favorite assessment.  Our students and all children deserve better than educational leaders “gaming the system”.

Gaming the system has been going on as long as there has been a system, and not just by principals or school administrators.  Teachers have been attempting to game the system, even if they are not planning on it.  In previous years, when the accountability system was just about how many students could pass a test, teachers would focus their instruction and time on the students who were close to being able to pass the assessment so that the passing rates would increase.  I am not blaming the teachers, it is the system that they found themselves in and thus did what they thought was best to meet this system.  But why is this the system that we have in the first place?  Where did the idea about testing students to determine if schools were functioning at high levels come from?  Here is a quick overview of the modern history of testing in the United States:

The US started to notice a decline in test scores starting after World War I, a military exam was modified to determine the best suited for further education and higher-employment (Petersen & West, 2003, p. 3). We know this test better as the Scholastic Aptitude Test or SAT. By the 1950’s this test became a requirement for entrance into most colleges in the nation. Soon this test eventually became a tool for a measure of public schools’ achievement (Schmidt 2008). But then in the 1960’s SAT scores began to decline and the American public and government became concerned and sought to intervene by passing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965. President Lyndon Johnson developed a multi-tiered educational reform that identified the correlation between low-test scores and students living in poverty, provided funding to schools with high populations of economically disadvantaged students, and thus, intended to improve educational opportunities for minority and lower-class children in an attempt to raise the test scores for the entire nation. This funding program is known as Title I (Schmidt 2008).

Then in 1983, Terrel H. Bell published the now famous A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform in America. The report claimed that, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people” (Bell, 1983). This report increased the level of concern of parents and government officials for the state of the public education system in the United States. Another concern that came from the report was the US’s low ranking when compared to scores of students from other countries throughout the world. Even though this report became a rallying cry for educational reform, it actually never influenced any federal reform.

Then in the 1990’s the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) became a hot button topic, as this was a non-biased testing agency that recorded how students from across the nation were performing and if there was improvement in different states. In the state of Texas, a testing program to hold districts and students accountable was in use and NAEP scores began to rise. As governor at the time, George W. Bush was convinced that testing and accountability was at the core of this rise in the NAEP scores. He took these ideas to the White House when he became president in 2000, and was able to pass the No Child Left Behind law in 2001. Even though “Texas is cited as a state in which the increase in the percentage of students meeting the standards was paralleled by increases in the state’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the low level of the state’s tests and the very different trend lines of the state and NAEP tests call this conclusion into question. More troubling still is that the increase in test scores was not accompanied by increases in outcomes of high value, such as increased high school completion or college attendance” (Mathis, 2003).  I believe that in education, many politicians are attempting to game the system even before the system is in place.  Education has many variables, which creates a complex system that is never black and white, but an infinite number of shades of gray.  But for politicians to win elections, they need money and votes.  I believe to obtain money and votes, they have to show people that things are either working or not working.  The easiest way to do this is to show one number (test score) and then show if it is going up or down.  Very easy to understand, but in this case, basically informs the populace of nothing.  And if we have an uninformed or misinformed populace, it is very easy to manipulate.  Which is why I feel public education is the most important aspect of a functioning democracy.  (For more information about this, you can read the transcripts from CNN’s High Stakes: The Battle to Save our Schools which details how the testing model was created in Houston, TX and even at that time, many were gaming the system.)

So as educators and leaders, what should we do?  Should we continue to set our sites low and just game the system to improve the school’s scores, or should we aim higher?  I believe that we as educators need to create a vision of education that allows all students to succeed and become problem solvers of the future. We cannot make this a simple system where all we focus on is the assessments and accountability system.  Educators should NOT be “Data Driven”! I believe educators need to be STUDENT DRIVEN and data informed.  Students are why we are here and we owe it to ALL of them to become better people, informed people, people who ask questions and solve problems, not just be able to answer standardized questions or only focus on the small group of students who can help us to increase our school’s ratings.  How do we do this?  I don’t believe there is an easy answer to this or just one answer to this.  It is too complicated of a problem to be able to answer it in one sentence or one paragraph, and especial in one blog post.  What I do believe is that we need passionate and engaged educators who have a different type of knowledge base.  In the mid 1980’s Lee Shulman introduced a term for the knowledge that teachers needed to be successful in the classroom as “pedagogical content knowledge” referring to the knowledge of the specific nature of the subject matter needed for teaching (Shulman, 1986). “Conceived as complementary to general pedagogical knowledge and general knowledge of subject matter, the concept of pedagogical content knowledge was thought to include familiarity with topics children find interesting or difficult, the representations most useful for teaching a specific content idea, and learners’ typical errors and misconceptions” (Hill, Ball & Schilling, nd, p.5).  I agree with Shulman that teachers need to have pedagogical content knowledge, but I also feel that there is a vital part missing, teachers building relationships with their students.  This may be even more important that pedagogy and content knowledge.  Teachers need to build positive relationships with their students, care about their students’ well being, and know where each student is coming from.  With this addition, teachers would know the content (what to teach), the pedagogy (how to teach), and relationships with students (who they are teaching).  This is a trifecta of teaching for student learning, which is a lofty aspiration, but one that I am willing to chase instead of just gaming the system.

Stay tuned, as I may discuss the trifecta in a future bolt post.  I would love to hear your feedback and questions as my main goal for this blog is to open conversations and create questions.  I feel questioning ideas are at the heart of problem solving and vital to education and growth.

This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual.

Bell T.C., (1983). A Nation at Risk. Retrieved June 16, 2008, from

Hill, H., Ball, D., & Schilling, S., (nd). Developing measures of teachers’ mathematics knowledge for teaching. Unpublished manuscript, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Mathis, William., (2003). No Child Left Behind Costs and Benefits. Retrieved June 17, 2008, from

Peterson P.E., & West M.R., (Eds.). (2003). No Child Left Behind? The Politics and Practice of Accountability. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Schmidt, Tom. (2008) Scratching the Surface of No Child Left Behind: How No Child Left Behind Unfairly Affects Schools with Significant Proportions of Disadvantaged Students. Dominican University of California p1-39.


5 thoughts on “Gaming the System

  1. Jon,

    You hit it on the head with the “trifecta!” Unfortunately, the “system” sometimes causes educators to aim low by focusing on a standardized test to determine the aptitude and altitude of our kids. We must learn how to work within the framework of the system, without becoming the system. I tell teachers that if they teach well and make adjustments as needed, the test will take care of itself. Our society has given these tests power. Until we snuff the power out of “standardization” I don’t see this unfortunate “event” going away. Check out the book The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing–But You Don’t Have to Be by Anya Kamenetz. This book has just moved to the top of my reading list. Great post! I look forward to hearing more from you on this topic!


  2. “Student driven, data informed.” After you used this phrase in our meeting last week, it made me reflect on our practices and changed the way I talk to teachers.


  3. Jon,
    Wow! “Student driven, data informed” says it all! Educators must remind each other to keep the focus on the main thing which will always be the kids. It is easy to fall into the trap of playing the game, but at best all you have done is possibly bought a little time. You have not addressed or fixed any real issues for kids and most of the time their curriculum gaps have gotten wider. Thanks for the thoughts to ponder and the great read!


  4. Well done, Jon! I couldn’t agree with you more regarding the relationship piece – vital to student success and engagement in school. Thank you for taking a step forward to challenge the thinking of practitioners. Keep challenging!


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