Atlanta Cheating Scandal More Reason to Keep Testing

Published July 28, 2011

The interwebs are ablaze with criticism of the “pressure to meet targets” on state standardized tests that allegedly led teachers and administrators in 80 percent of Atlanta Public Schools investigated to distort or falsify results.

An 800-page investigative report Gov. Nathan Deal’s office released July 5 offers evidence teachers and administrators right up to the superintendent knew or complied with telling students answers and held “cheating parties” to erase wrong marks and pencil in correct ones, for as long as ten years.

At least 178 teachers and principals cheated, the report says, and former Superintendent Beverly Hall and other administrators threatened retribution against whistleblowers.

Similar incidents have occurred recently in cities such as Baltimore, Houston, and Washington, DC, but so far the Atlanta probe has revealed the biggest cheating scandal in U.S. history. And it’s true that increasing the use of data-based measurements for students, teachers, and administrators is likely also to increase the number and severity of such scandals. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon tests or stop applying the results forcefully.

It’s easy to join Montana and Idaho (which recently announced they will ignore No Child Left Behind benchmarks in the coming year) in disdaining federal education shackles, but armchair test critics should consider two things. First, as with nearly all ethical failures, the individuals involved chose their actions. Tests did not cause the immoral behavior; it was instead an attempt to cover up an inexcusable failure to educate students. Second, school systems that want to be free of state and federal requirements can do so by not relying on them for money. Tests are simply a mechanism of necessary oversight for public funds.

True, several Atlanta teachers said they felt at risk of their jobs if they did not cooperate with or conceal test-cooking, but this is far from brute force. No one placed a gun to their heads and screamed, “Falsify those results!” U.S. citizens have a right to switch jobs if they don’t like the working conditions, and the law provides protection for whistleblowers.

And teachers were hardly the only ones cheating. Superintendents and principals led the effort, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. These leaders created the atmosphere in which cheating was the dominant, immoral culture. They, and not external factors, are primarily to blame for the scandal. Some people cheat in response to higher requirements. Others strive to meet the requirements. Which system would you prefer to have your taxes pay for?

Before the Atlanta story broke, New York Times columnist David Brooks preempted the coming fallout with a column discussing standardized tests and schools. He observed that tests have corroded not the schools associated with the reformers, but the schools reformers haven’t touched, the mediocre institutions with weak leaders and lacking clear, achievement-oriented missions. In those places, the teaching-to-the-test ethos prevails.

As Brooks’s oped indicates, tests are a tool. They are only a tool. Just as a murderer might use any household item—a shovel, bleach, a paring knife—for his barbarous deed, so schools, teachers, and unions can misuse tests. Or they can use them well and reap the rewards of accountability.

It’s important to note certain institutional structures encourage wrongdoing while others accomplish the opposite. Policymakers and administrators must amend poor systems to encourage, rather than discourage, people to do the right thing. How to do this in K-12 education is still wide open for debate. But federalism, while clunky of late, has been steadily accomplishing its work in this area through myriad pilot programs and data-driven efforts in recent years. This is no time to stop experimenting because some miscreants distorted their jobs; neither should we abandon accountability to avoid revealing failures in many schools. That’s what testing is supposed to do.

What’s particularly revealing about the Atlanta case is how even minor pressure for accountability on a mediocre state test created such panic in the city’s schools. It reveals a moral failure, a child’s tantrum against the yardstick when it demonstrates she is too short to ride a rollercoaster. It’s an alarming trend in a world increasingly corroded by outrageous reactions to unpleasant facts, as in the Greek riots over measures to solve country-rending budget deficits and Congress’s apparent inability to forestall a Constitutional crisis over our debt limit.

Anti-test critics argue against the public receiving some sort of measureable return for the billions we spend on education. Of course, they don’t admit that openly, instead claiming certain tests aren’t fair or don’t actually measure teachers’ impact. The NEA, for example, recently announced that it now approves using student achievement as a factor in evaluating teachers. The catch? No current test actually meets the NEA’s criteria for measuring student achievement. Ah. Of course.

Data collection and analysis have improved results and cut costs in nearly every sector of the economy, and are beginning to do the same in education—when the establishment can be forced to allow it. It frees students in New York, for example, to spend more time on concepts they find difficult and speed through others they find simple; lets schools in Chicago track student attendance and preempt dropouts; and encourages schools and districts everywhere to share open-source apps for connecting with parents and communicating class objectives from teacher to teacher to parent to student to principal. Unfortunately, this positive power for change has barely reached the cracked edges of education.

Instead of presenting an obstacle to cheat around, tests and other data systems offer schools, students, and parents freedom, personalization, and efficiency.

Actually, the Atlanta cheating scandal shows these new systems are beginning to work. Unrealistic improvements in achievement test scores prodded the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to investigate long before the governor’s team proved the paper’s hunch. The same happened with a statistical analysis of student scores in Pennsylvania. Atlanta’s incident has already pushed legislators and school administrators to incorporate measures to stop cheating.

Governments can choke schools with testing requirements, and nearly everyone now recognizes goals of 100 percent proficiency like NCLB’s provide less incentive than punishment. The real challenge for today’s educators and policymakers is to discover, through trial and error, how best to employ testing and metrics to accomplish our goal of creating the best education the nation can realistically offer.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is a research fellow in education and managing editor of School Reform News at The Heartland Institute.