What we should (but won’t) learn from the latest test-cheating scandal

Georgia state prosecutors have indicted 34 teachers, administrators and principals for altering students’ answers on standardized tests in the Atlanta public school system. Is that shocking? Maybe it shouldn’t be.

First, the facts. According to the New York Times:

After a 2 ½ year investigation, Beverly L. Hall, a former district superintendent who won praise for her job performance, was charged with racketeering, theft and other crimes in the doctoring of students’ test answers.

…[One teacher] admitted that she was one of seven teachers—nicknamed  “the chosen”—who sat in a locked windowless room every afternoon during the week of state testing, raising students’ scores by erasing wrong answers and then making them right. She agreed to wear a hidden electronic wire to school, and for weeks she secretly recorded the conversations of her fellow teachers.

Why are we so surprised? Admittedly, teachers going undercover and wearing wires to turn state’s evidence, avoid prosecution and rat out their co-conspirators is a bizarre educational scenario that sounds more like a “Law and Order” episode than a day in the life of a third-grade teacher. But while it may seem strange, this development is merely the latest in a long series of similar standardized-test cheating scandals that have characterized the test-happy No Child Left Behind ideology since its inception.

Since No Child Left Behind became law. cheating charges been leveled in Florida, California, Illinois, Indiana, Delaware, Michigan, New York, Nevada, Maryland, Ohio and South Carolina, among others.

Cheating comes in many creative forms. According to FairTest:

  • In El Paso, Texas, a superintendent went to prison after removing low-performing children from classes to improve the district’s test scores.
  • In Ohio, several urban districts may have intentionally listed low-performing students as having withdrawn, even though they were still in school.
  • A Brooklyn, NY, elementary school kept copies of previous years’ exams and gave them to teachers and students to prepare for new exams.
  • Teachers at a Manhattan elementary school were accused of urging parents to label their kids “learning disabled” to obtain more time to finish a high-stakes third-grade reading exam.
  •  A principal of a school serving low-income students in Worcester, MA, resigned after the percentage of students scoring proficient on the state test suddenly jumped from 17 to 76 percent, in one subject and grade.
  • An eighth-grade teacher in Pennsylvania was suspended after being accused of providing students with answers to the state test.
  •   A Boston principal was accused of sending a teacher out of a fourth-grade classroom and then insisting that students redo their tests.

It seems that, in many of these cases, the moral question of cheating, and the fear factor of being caught may have added  up to less of a threat than the fear of missing out on a financial reward or losing one’s job. (Personally, I’m conflicted about whether any of these tactics is absolutely wrong, given the essential wrongness of the testing concept itself. But that’s another post.)

In fact, the whole No Child Left Behind concept has been marinating in cheating since day one. Proposed during the 2000 presidential election by George W. Bush, it was based on the “Texas Miracle” that, in reality, was a fraud. By making school officials accountable for the success of their students, the program purportedly resulted in a zero dropout rate among Houston high-school students. Until, it turned out later—after the damage had already been done via the nationwide adoption of No Child Left Behind, it didn’t. Motivated by financial incentives to reduce the school district’s high dropout rate, school officials had fudged the data. So, actually George W. Bush and his Secretary of Education were technically correct in saying that the “Texas Miracle” inspired the program: It’s just that what it actually inspired was cheating, not educational improvement.

From the outset, too good to be true was, indeed, too good to be true. The Houston dropout rate looked miraculous, but it was falsified. Similar “phenomenal” results in other school districts’ test scores have also—often– proven to be bogus. And, once again, this is the case in Atlanta in 2013.

The New York Times reports:

At Parks Middle School, which investigators say was the site of the city’s worst cheating, test scores soared right after the arrival of a new principal—who is one of the 35 named in the indictment.  His first year at Parks—2005–, 86 percent of eighth graders scored proficient in math compared with 24 percent the year before. 78 percent passed the state reading test, versus 35 percent the previous year.

The falsified test scores were so high that Parks Middle was no longer classified as a school in need of improvement.

And, although the concept of accountability sounds nice, that too has been corrupted by over-reliance on test scores and the lure of financial gain and personal fame. In the latest instance, Atlanta’s school superintendent earned more than $500,000 in performance bonuses for bringing up test scores.

The testing never stops. It’s metastasizing to lower grades, getting more high-stakes every school year, and, it appears, perpetuating—even escalating—the perceived and rewarded need to cheat.

And so, like the students subjected to the absurdity of test-driven schools, we’re just not learning. We’ve all been hoodwinked by the testing-industrial complex and by the lure of easy answers to complex educational issues.

So, stop feigning surprise and shock. Cheating has ceased to be a scandal and has become an embedded norm in American schools.

Can we hope for change? I’m skeptical. We can’t even get Congress to pass minimal gun-control legislation even after 20 kids have been killed in a school. What makes us think that we’re going to get rational about education?