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Monday, April 1, 2013

Atlanta Outrage

Two years ago while working in an Atlanta suburban elementary school to foster inquiry-based instruction and curricula, I heard stories about cheating on standardized test within the city school system.  There was no proof, only rumors at that time.

Now, according to Michael Winerip in The New York Times (3/30/13) 35 school personnel have been indicted for doing just that: cheating on standardized test scores.

What were clues?  “. . .extraordinary increases in test scores from one year to the next, along with a high number of erasures on answering sheets from wrong to right.” (p. A13)

Here’s how it worked.  Students in elementary and middle schools took the high stakes tests in reading and math.  Some did well and others posted enough wrong answers to indicate sub-par achievement.  These scores were subsequently changed to indicate performances at norm or above.

How?  Teachers closeted themselves in rooms without windows and erased the incorrect responses and penciled in the correct answers.  All the while school administrators were standing guard at the door.  Principals even wore gloves while handling the test papers.

Results?  Many schools posted scores that met or exceeding given norms, showing their students to be proficient when they were not.

Principals were rewarded. Teachers received tenure and bonuses. Those whose schools failed suffered consequences, many losing their jobs.  “Low score---out the door,” noted one involved teacher.  You can imagine the psychological pressures on teachers and administrators. 

How did this happen?  The allegations are that leadership, including the Superintendent, so insisted upon superior performance, with “no excuses,” that cheating proliferated.

 The practice supposedly began in 2004.  Said one involved teacher, “The cheating had been going on so long, we considered it part of our job.”  That was the norm, test score sheets, erasers, closed doors and protective gloves.

What’s sad is that the district took these means to boost students’ performance,  giving all a false sense of achievement, especially the students.

The outrage is that district leadership has thereby cheated its students out of the instructional work needed to learn how to read, write and compute satisfactorily.

The further outrage is that these leaders and teachers garnered for themselves all of the kudos, while their children suffered.  “Look at us!” they proclaimed.  “Our students performed at or above their grade levels!  They’ve improved so dramatically!  We must be doing something right!”  NOT.

They cheated the kids out of their anticipated growth had the district taught them the basics as they should have done.  The leadership gave up on the kids and said to themselves, “The only way to get these children to succeed is to cheat!”

Shame on them!

High expectations are splendid and they certainly are what we need in order to ensure that all students, regardless of SES, talent, learning abilities and the like, succeed. 

Honest educators about the land are working with determination, skill, art, research and persistence to ensure that all children succeed to the best of their ability.  The record of KIPP schools and others (P21 districts, for example) attest to our successes with all students.

We want all kids to grow up to be curious, and to pursue meaningful inquiries in all their classes.  But we’ll never get there so long as high stakes tests are the measurement for teachers’ and administrators’ performance.

In some districts standardized tests are counting 50% of a teacher’s evaluation.  Here in NYC it may be 20%.  State legislators might take a lesson from Atlanta about the over-riding impact of high stakes testing and their detrimental effects on some of our students.

Leaders should foster amongst all educators the alternative means of observing students’ growth in 21st century skills: inquiry, problem solving, critical/creative thinking.  We do see such growth in kindergarten teachers observing and tracking students’ growth in asking good questions; sixth and eighth grade teachers monitoring students’ abilities to think critically; and high school teachers who challenge students to create their own math problems, and  to analyze data in literature and physics classes.  (See How Do We Know They’re Getting Better? Assessment for 21st Century Minds, K-8: www.morecuriousminds.com

Students need to be able to ask good questions, think analytically and creatively, to be entrepreneurs and innovators.  In order to achieve these goals we need to buckle down and ensure that all our children can read, write and compute skillfully.


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  2. yes, exactly! cheating proof standards should be maintained in schools. because it's a matter of future of the whole state.