AT ONE SCHOOL, teachers organized weekend changing “parties” where students’ answer sheets to standardized tests were altered. Another had a group of “chosen ones” who would gather in a locked office in the afternoon to erase wrong answers penciled in by students. So sophisticated was one school in its approach that it created plastic transparency sheets to make it easier to change wrong answers. The details of the massive cheating scandal embroiling Atlanta Public Schools are sickening. Why is it then that some are apparently willing to look beyond those who behaved so dishonorably to instead — incredibly — blame the tests?
A yearlong investigation ordered by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal found a pattern of cheating by educators in Atlanta’s public schools. A 800-page report focuses on the 2009 administration of the state’s standardized competency tests but makes clear cheating occurred before that year and as early as 2001. Of 56 schools examined, misconduct was found at 44, or 78.6 percent, of the schools; of 178 educators implicated, 38 were principals. Most devastating was the charge that former schools superintendent Beverly Hall knew about the allegations but either ignored them or tried to cover them up. She has denied wrongdoing, but in an op-ed published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution she accepted responsibility for any shortcomings that permitted cheating to go undetected.
Teachers who admitted to cheating said they were under enormous pressure to raise test scores. That’s prompted some to see the tests, a requirement of No Child Left Behind, as the real culprit. What did you expect, goes this thinking, when you put such high stakes — a school’s evaluation, federal funding, teacher compensation, even jobs — on test scores? That’s a little like suggesting an end to keeping score in baseball because it’s an incentive to use steroids, or eliminating the SAT because some students will try to cheat.
What’s most troubling about this argument is that it demeans the integrity and honor of America’s educators, the vast majority of whom don’t believe that the pressure to perform is a license to cheat. There’s no better method of gauging knowledge and skill than testing; to suggest doing away with this vital tool because of a few bad apples is mad. That’s not to suggest that there isn’t a need for some changes. Attention should be paid to how tests are administered and how suspicious test activity is investigated. Efforts to create useful tests and to move from snapshots to measuring student improvement must be accelerated.