We teach children that “cheaters never win.” Unfortunately for the students of the Atlanta Public Schools, it’s a lesson that the adults in charge have apparently not yet learned. Last week a state investigation found evidence that more than 150 APS staff members directly participated in or knew of schemes to change student answer sheets to reflect correct answers.
The news is devastating for a school system widely regarded as defying the odds and increasing achievement among its low-income, mostly African-American students. The gains reported by the Atlanta public school system garnered millions of dollars in private funds and accolades for Superintendent Beverly Hall. APS’ success, which Hall attributed to (pdf) standards-based instruction and strong professional development for teachers, was also a boon to supporters of traditional public school systems, who believe that reform is possible without overreliance on charter schools and with dramatic changes in teaching policy.
The Atlanta incident has led many education spectators to conclude that an overemphasis on standardized testing and the federal accountability system under No Child Left Behind created an atmosphere in which teachers had to cheat. The state report (pdf) certainly provides ample fodder for this view. It describes dysfunction across the system, with several teachers told either to falsify answers or to face termination.
Atlanta’s troubles demonstrate some of the worst outcomes of a test-based accountability system. Rather than miss performance targets set by a seemingly out-of-touch administration, some educators chose to take matters into their own hands. They often succeeded in avoiding the fate of many urban schools: being labeled as “failing” under NCLB’s accountability structure. In the process, the desire to avoid negative repercussions seemed to eclipse concerns about student progress. Among the most disheartening details from the report are quotes from a teacher who thought her students were just too “dumb” to do well on the test.
As alarming as this scandal is, we should resist efforts to halt testing altogether or to return to a time when school failure could go largely unaddressed. We must create a better system of tests and accountability, not only to avoid continued disillusionment with reform efforts but also to refocus the work of schools and teachers on teaching and learning.
It’s not a surprise that reports of cheating and overstressed teachers have produced a negative attitude toward the use of tests. But standardized tests, when reflective of standards and curriculum, can be a useful tool for teachers. The data from tests can inform teachers of the knowledge their students have gained and what they still need to learn.
Tests are particularly useful in helping teachers understand where their students fall in comparison with other students. Without such tests, many states and school systems would be able to conceal wide disparities in the quality of education provided to students of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds.