By Robert A. Schaeffer
The Atlanta cheating scandal is likely the largest in scope in U.S. history in terms of the number of people implicated. But it is hardly an isolated incident.
For more than two decades, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), has tracked reports of cheating from across the nation. The number of cases has exploded in recent years, with new reports nearly every week.
In the past few months, improper test score manipulation have been uncovered in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando and many smaller communities.
The Georgia Office of Special Investigators’ report on the Atlanta scandal provides a particularly cogent analysis of the causes of the problem. If politicians who mandate school policies heed its findings, it should have powerful implications for both federal and state testing requirements.
Here’s what the Georgia investigators found:
“Three primary conditions led to widespread cheating on the 2009 CRCT. The targets set by the district were often unreasonable, especially given their cumulative effect over the years. Additionally, the administration put unreasonable pressure on teachers and principals to achieve targets.”
Unreasonable score gain targets coupled with unreasonable pressure on educators is standard operating procedure for testing programs across the nation. Independent analysts conclude that nearly all public schools ultimately will be declared “failing” under the No Child Left Behind mandate of 100 percent proficiency. Teachers and principals face stern sanctions, including job loss, if they do not boost scores.
“A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation spread throughout the district.”
Though the specific tactics of fear, intimidation and retaliation may have been unique to Atlanta schools, teachers report similar patterns of behavior in other districts where large enrollments of low-income and second language students make low test scores more likely.
With ever-escalating pressure, it’s not surprising that more educators are pushed across the ethical line. Of course, this does not justify their behavior, but it certainly explains it.
“Dr. Hall and her administration emphasized test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics.”
When test scores become the sole or primary tool for evaluating students, classrooms and schools, educators feel they must get the scores they need by hook or by crook.
Through overemphasizing standardized results, politicians are, in effect, cheating students, teachers, parents and taxpayers by violating the standards of the testing profession, which say that no score should be used to make such high-stakes judgments.
“What has become clear through our investigation is that ultimately, the data and meeting ‘targets’ by whatever means necessary, became more important than true academic progress.”
That’s the biggest problem of all. The high-stakes testing explosion has led to dumbed-down teaching and learning, which, like cheating, is epidemic in Atlanta and across the nation.
Georgia and other states, as well as the federal administration and Congress, should treat the Atlanta scandal as a national warning call. Assessment and accountability policies much be overhauled to promote genuine educational quality, not just easily manipulated test scores.
Robert A. Schaeffer is the public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest).
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