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The PJ Tatler

by
Dan Miller

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July 7, 2011 - 10:02 am

This article reports that there’s something rotten in Atlanta:

Award-winning gains by Atlanta students were based on widespread cheating by 178 named teachers and principals, said Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday. His office released a report from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that names 178 teachers and principals – 82 of whom confessed – in what’s likely the biggest cheating scandal in US history.

This appears to be the largest of dozens of major cheating scandals, unearthed across the country. The allegations point an ongoing problem for US education, which has developed an ever-increasing dependence on standardized tests.

The report on the Atlanta Public Schools, released Tuesday, indicates a “widespread” conspiracy by teachers, principals and administrators to fix answers on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT), punish whistle-blowers, and hide improprieties.

It is a big and systemic problem, the persistent concealment of which made it worse. When teachers cheat it amounts also to lying and stealing. The linked article notes,

Ten states now use test scores as the main criterion in teacher evaluations. Other states reward high-scoring teachers with up to $25,000 bonuses – while low scores could result in principals losing their jobs or entire schools closing. Even as the number of scandals grows, experts say it remains fairly easy for teachers and principals to get away with ethical lapses.

It’s even a bit worse than that, however. How can the students entrusted to such teachers fail to notice when there are systemic efforts to reward cheating teachers and to cover up the foulness? Temporary beneficiaries of the fraud but ultimately the biggest victims, at least some of the students must have been aware at some level of what their mentors were doing. If teachers cheat and are rewarded for doing so, it works so why not do it too? A culture of dishonesty is perpetuated.

Teaching to the test even without overt cheating is itself an important aspect of the problem. To the extent that such teaching fails to produce the desired results, making overt cheating necessary, it demonstrates its unsuccess.  It is in any event little more than a concealed form of systemic cheating and beyond that it diminishes the education students receive while enhancing school funding — and rewards for “successful” teachers who teach to the test and otherwise cheat. As I observed here, in an article on higher education,

Even without overt fudging, testing procedures themselves have become part of the problem, certainly at the primary and secondary school levels. As noted here,

“Incentive programs” in the decade-old No Child Left Behind law — with school districts being rewarded or punished based on standardized test scores — have improved student performance in key subject areas by less than 1 percentage point when using benchmarks set by the National Assessment of Education Progress, an arm of the Education Department. [...] [A]ssessments that focus on students’ knowledge [sh]ould not directly affect the funding a district gets. Without the fear of financial punishment from the federal government because of students’ poor results, teachers would not be forced to “teach to the test” [...]. Forcing teachers to focus the majority of their attention on a single year-end assessment can have a devastating effect on students [...].

Having to “teach to the test” diminishes what should be the passion demonstrated by even a competent teacher and hence the joy of learning experienced by his students. It also sends unprepared and inadequately motivated students on to college.

Students who were pushed along through primary and secondary school — and managed to get into college because they were pushed along regardless of lack of effort– are likely to expect to be pushed along there as well; they are entitled to succeed without working to do so. And they are often allowed to do just that. Grade alignment — a species of go along to get along — seems to be endemic. To the extent that it is countenanced and the “beneficiaries” are graduated from college and begin teaching, the process repeats itself; it’s like an endless loop in computer code.

It’s great that some teachers and administrators in Atlanta were finally caught. They should be fired if not drawn and quartered. That, however, will not sufficiently diminish the underlying problem. Until teaching to the test is eliminated it will remain, hidden but still metastasizing.

Dan Miller graduated from Yale University in 1963 and from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1966. He retired from the practice of law in Washington, D.C., in 1996 and has lived in a rural area in Panama since 2002.
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