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.
More often than not, schools in both low- and high-income communities where students are actually learning are not where teachers are so worried about test scores that they feel forced to cheat. Instead, successful schools and districts provide their students with high-quality instruction, engaging curriculums and supports that deliver sustained student achievement. In my own experience as a teacher, I found that teaching the plays of August Wilson, turning vocabulary quizzes into Jeopardy games and spending extra time with struggling readers yielded much more success on those tests than drills on synonyms and antonyms did.
Obviously, the administrators and teachers at many schools don't feel that emphasizing these factors will ensure success in the current accountability system. They may be right. NCLB pushed states to set goals for students to be "proficient" in reading and math by 2014. But the law's response to schools that fail to meet these goals didn't cause schools to double down on efforts to recruit great teachers or figure out new ways to teach math. Instead, schools became more focused on avoiding the law's gradually increasing sanctions.
Almost everyone in education — from parents to the president — agrees that this accountability system doesn't work. A new approach should encourage the kind of effective teaching and meaningful learning that leads students to success beyond any single year of test data. At the same time, schools (and teachers) that continually fail students have to change.
Expanding the criteria for rating schools may reduce the myopic focus on standardized test results. Such an assessment should cover factors that increase student achievement, including instruction, funding and support for students.
Standardized tests also have a place in the evaluation of schools. When students repeatedly do poorly on tests that accurately measure their knowledge, we should be examining the reasons. The challenge for policymakers is to craft the appropriate responses to any sign of school failure, whether it's a lack of competent school leadership or insufficient lab tools for students to learn science.
There is no foolproof way to guard against cheating in a system where adults are ultimately responsible for student learning. But when education policy focuses on creating and supporting academic environments in which learning is the goal, school cultures will likely change from test-focused to student-focused. That's a lesson worth teaching our children.
Saba Bireda is a graduate of Harvard Law School and an education advocate living in Washington, D.C. She is the deputy director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council.