The Great Debate

Quantifying the damage of the rush to quantify

It was unsurprising to hear, as we did Tuesday, that Claremont McKenna College had lied about its students’ SAT scores to boost its position in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of colleges. University officials are famously obsessed with these rankings, and this is not the first time that a school has admitted fudging data. Just last year, Villanova Law School said that it had given false information to U.S. News.

Today we quantify and rank the performance of people and institutions as never before – all in pursuit, supposedly, of better outcomes and greater efficiency. Yet this obsession with metrics, a hallmark of the free-market ideology, invariably creates more incentives to cheat.

University presidents fret endlessly about the U.S. News rankings because they can have dramatic effects on everything from the quality of student applicants to the ability of schools to attract faculty and raise money. In an earlier era, one free of U.S. News, schools would not have had much reason to lie about SAT scores or admission rates. But now, with these numbers seen as hugely important, you can understand the temptation to monkey around with the reported data.

It’s not just colleges. Metrics have also taken over our K-12 schools, and they’re worse off for it. The education world has been roiled by major scandals recently in which administrators and teachers have been found to have manipulated student scores on standardized tests. These have not been isolated incidents, with revelations of false reporting in Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, Birmingham, New York City and Los Angeles.

It’s no secret why so many teachers and administrators are fudging test numbers: The pressure surrounding high-stakes testing is evident enough in the phrase itself. Tests now determine how schools are funded and, in some places, which teachers get bonuses. Incentives to cheat are baked into this system, and those incentives will only grow if more localities link teacher performance to compensation.

from David Cay Johnston:

A history of audit failures

The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The admission by Olympus Corp that it falsified financial reports for more than a decade should not shock anyone. The shock is that, for years, auditors failed to detect such massive fraud.

The failures of auditors to uncover cooked books, which run the gamut from Adelphia to Waste Management Inc, are a cancer on the accounting industry.

The failures go back years. How about Al Dunlap's manufactured numbers at Sunbeam in 1998? Or teenage con man Barry Minkow's ZZZZ Best, which turned out to be a Ponzi scheme and collapsed in 1987? Or Equity Funding, with its computer program to fabricate life insurance policies, in 1973? Or the National Student Marketing "pooling of interests" fraud in 1970, which gave birth to the Financial Accounting Standards Board? Or the 1938 McKesson & Robbins scandal, which gave us the first American audit standards? Or Ivar Kreuger's 20 percent dividends Ponzi scheme in 1932?