"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." Wikipedia entry
Recently, in an Education Week blog
, Walt Gardner observed that Campbell’s Law struck the use of standardized achievement tests for high-stakes education decisions. He notes several high profile scandals in school testing programs. Examples of cheating by districts and schools he dates back to at least 1969 in Texas, in addition to more recent cases in Georgia, Indiana, Nevada, Virginia, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and California.
Education is not the only field in which Campbell’s Law applies, according to a comment
in 2007 by Nichols and Berliner in the Harvard Education Letter. They claim there are in other fields numerous examples of “corruption, cheating, gaming the system, taking short cuts, and so forth whenever high stakes are attached to performance in athletics, academia, politics, government agencies, and the military.”
The nature and extent to which performance criteria inevitably lead to corruption is a matter of debate, and a tough problem to investigate. But there’s every reason Campbell’s Law operates to some extent in any field, and if nothing else is a warning to be humble about claims that setting quantitative criteria to meet is a easy way to improve performance.
If we don’t use standardized tests to assess student learning, what do we use? It is wise to remember standardized tests were once hailed as a democratic alternative to privilege and patronage that determined access to valued assets such as college entrance and employment opportunities. So what now?