Several lessons can be learned from the ugly scandal that has unfolded in an Atlanta school district. Beware of superstar administrators. Be skeptical of suddenly improving test scores. Don’t rest all your hopes and fears on a single measure.
To review, Atlanta Public Schools went from being an education reform darling to the ugly district that condoned cheating. A state investigation released by the governor last week found that cheating occurred on annual student tests at 44 of the 56 schools examined. A total of 178 principals and teachers were involved; nearly half of them have confessed. The image of educators erasing the wrong answer and writing in the correct ones is appalling.
The probe found a culture of fear and intimidation in the district, which was headed for many years by Beverly Hall, who was named the nation’s top superintendent in 2009. Once the media began investigating possible cheating, the district engineered a cover-up. Hall resigned last fall.
While Atlanta and Hall provide the most egregious examples of cheating, other districts and leaders have come under fire.
Michelle Rhee was the celebrated leader of a turnaround in Washington, D.C., schools, but USA Today found inordinately high instances of wrong answers being turned into correct ones on high-stakes tests. The principal at one of its Blue Ribbon schools recently resigned. An investigation is under way.
The Texas school system, whose structure formed the basis for the federal No Child Left Behind Act, had instances of cheating on standardized tests in the early 2000s. In 2007, the Dallas Morning News found tens of thousands of instances of student cheating on tests.
Even Spokane Public Schools had a couple of instances of teachers cheating on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning when that was the state’s high-stakes exam.
We fully support accountability and the collection of data to prove results. But when the stakes are high and the measurements are unreasonably applied, states and districts are inviting corruption. Test scores become the Holy Grail, and effective teaching goes by the wayside. Washington state has backed off on its testing regimen. The WASL is history and multiple measurements have taken its place.
However, the No Child Left Behind Act remains, along with its unreasonable mandate for 100 percent compliance. Congress needs to look at the unintended consequences of its impractical law and do a rewrite.
The truly meaningful measurement is whether students are improving over the course of an academic year. This is the progress parents want to see. This is the progress that should form the basis of analysis for evaluating teachers.
What these scandals show is that political pressure for sudden results can ultimately cheat the students. Education improvement takes time. We need to have the patience to let it happen.