Earlier this week at The Atlantic, Emily Richmond asked whether high-stakes testing caused the Atlanta schools cheating scandal. The answer, I would argue, is yes... just not in the way you might think. Tests don't cause unethical behavior. But they did cause the Atlanta cheating scandal, and they are doing damage to the teaching profession.
The argument that tests do not cause unethical behavior is fairly straightforward, and has been articulated by a number of writers. Jonathan Chait quite correctly points out that unethical behavior occurs in virtually all professions -- and that it occurs particularly when there are clear incentives to succeed.
Incentivizing any field increases the impetus to cheat. Suppose journalism worked the way teaching traditionally had. You get hired at a newspaper, and your advancement and pay are dictated almost entirely by your years on the job, with almost no chance of either becoming a star or of getting fired for incompetence. Then imagine journalists changed that and instituted the current system, where you can get really successful if your bosses like you or be fired if they don't. You could look around and see scandal after scandal -- phone hacking! Jayson Blair! NBC's exploding truck! Janet Cooke! Stephen Glass! -- that could plausibly be attributed to this frightening new world in which journalists had an incentive to cheat in order to get ahead.
It holds true of any field. If Major League Baseball instituted tenure, and maybe used tee-ball rules where you can't keep score and everybody gets a chance to hit, it could stamp out steroid use. Students have been cheating on tests forever -- massive, systematic cheating, you could say. Why? Because they have an incentive to do well. Give teachers and administrators an incentive for their students to do well, and more of them will cheat.
For Chait, then, teaching has just been made more like journalism or baseball; it has gone from an incentiveless occupation to one with incentives.