Over the past decade, the Atlanta public schools garnered significant acclaim for their steadily rising test scores. But now, it appears that these successes were based on widespread, systematic cheating across at least 44 schools, which was finally uncovered by a state investigation. The cheating was perpetrated by almost 200 of the district’s teachers and principals, 82 of whom have confessed. The scandal was publicly announced by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who vowed, “There will be consequences.” According to the New York Times, these consequences will almost certainly involve dismissals, and could possibly include criminal charges.
The person at the center of the controversy is former Superintendant Beverly Hall, who announced last November that she would be leaving her job in June. In her farewell address last month, she admitted for the first time that some wrongdoing had occurred, but did not blame herself. She was named Superintendant of the Year in 2009, and before the results of the state investigation was regarded as one of the best in her profession, especially when it came to administering inner city schools.
Teachers were reportedly found to be erasing and changing tests after the students had submitted their answers. The intense focus on test scores, as well as unrealistic expectations, is already being cited as a primary incentive for teachers and administrators to resort to cheating. Disturbingly, however, the state investigation found a culture of retaliation and silencing within the schools. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the district repeatedly failed to investigate allegations that cheating was happening, and employees who complained were simply labeled as “disgruntled.” One principal went so far as to open an ethics investigation against a whistleblower.
The cheating scandal in Atlanta is dramatic, but it’s not uncommon. The fact that teacher cheating isn’t out of the ordinary raises questions about the efficacy of rewarding teachers and schools for high test scores, and punishing them when the scores fall. In Atlanta, one worry is that many students may have been passed to the next grade with falsified test scores, even if they were not ready to move on. Understandably, this raises questions about how to measure a school or teacher’s success.
“It becomes a question of what it means to be educated,” said Maria Pease, a former teacher and parent of an Atlanta high school student. “Does it mean the highest test score? I would argue it does not. This is part and parcel of a general dysfunction that isn’t particular to Atlanta public schools.”
Robert Schaffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing agreed that high-stakes testing is not the best way to measure improvement. ”When test scores are all that matter, some educators feel pressured to get the scores they need by hook or by crook,” he said. “The higher the stakes, the greater the incentive to manipulate, to cheat.”
The news out of Atlanta isn’t good, but perhaps it will be a wake-up call. Smaller infractions like these occur in public schools throughout the United States. Artificially high test scores might look good for a school district, but ultimately they do an enormous disservice to the students who rely on their teachers to help them learn, not make them look as they are learning. If the emphasis on test scores is responsible for teachers’ desperation to make it seem as though they are teaching to the test, then maybe we should rethink the way we measure educational success.
Photo from editorb via flickr