2 major lessons from the Atlanta test cheating scandal

Some see the actions of those convicted as indicative of a much larger problem

Last week saw the close of the Atlanta test cheating scandal as 11 of 12 educators remaining from an initial 35 indicted in March 2013 were found guilty of conspiracy in the changing of student responses on state standardized tests.

With sentencing set for April 13 at 10 a.m., the 11 face as many as 20 years behind bars, not counting the five to 10 years the mixed bag of felony charges for false statements and theft will bring. Of their fellow teachers and administrators facing charges, 21 pleaded guilty to lesser charges, while former superintendent Beverly Hall, also indicted, died during the trial.

Atlanta, while an extreme example, is far from an isolated incident. And with the dust settling five years after the cheating was initially uncovered, those watching the K-12 space have identified two major lessons from the school up to federal levels.

Cheating solves nothing

This first lesson is an obvious one that educators try to instill in students; cheating isn't the way to go. You might succeed at cheating once or twice, but eventually you're going to get caught. 

And the consequences are dire.

As the Huffington Post's Jason Linkins pointed out, the convicted teachers and administrators in Atlanta were led out of the courtroom handcuffed, likely as an example to anyone else who would doctor students' exams. And Darryl E. Owens of the Orlando Sentinel stated that teachers are "paragons of educational virtue" and bad teachers deserve "a rotten apple." 

Either point is hard to argue. But while educators cheating does indeed serve as a bad example to students, who in turn also need to understand there's a price to pay for those actions, there's also the larger argument that these teachers and administrators were simply a product of an environment created by larger issues.

The stakes may be too high in standardized testing

What Linkins, Owens, and plenty of others have pointed out in the aftermath of the verdict is that current testing policies have created a climate where high scores must be acquired in any way possible. In a piece for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing's public education director, Robert Schaeffer, noted that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reached the same conclusion.

In an email statement, Fordham University's Mark Naison, who has been described by NYU education historian Diane Ravitch as "America's education gadfly par excellence," told Education Dive that even when tests were used primarily to evaluate students, prior to No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top, they were still considered controversial because many felt they were biased against low-income and minority students.

"But once tests were used to evaluate schools, school districts, and, more recently, individual principals and teachers, with the threat of school closings and staff firings the consequence for poor test performance, a truly toxic environment was created in many urban school districts," Naison wrote. "With educators' livelihood and reputations at stake, the pressure to raise test scores from students who were already under great stress became overwhelming. It is understandable to see how some educators, in this immoral and untenable position, chose to manipulate test scores rather than put their students under even greater stress."

Indeed, as Parks Middle School math teacher Damany Lewis told the New Yorker's Rachel Aviv last July“I’m not going to let the state slap them in the face and say they’re failures. I’m going to do everything I can to prevent the why-try spirit.”

Without a doubt, Atlanta is an extreme-but-not-isolated case. The District of Columbia and 40 states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Ohio, Louisiana, and California, have faced similar testing issues. Districts in Florida and other states have also protested by refusing to participate in standardized exams. And while a bipartisan rewrite of No Child Left Behind in the U.S. Senate would maintain annual standardized testing but give states more authority over accountability measures, the debate isn't likely to be settled anytime soon.

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Filed Under: K12 Policy & Regulation
Top image credit: Wikimedia; J. Miers