What’s Really Scandalous About the Atlanta Schools Testing Scandal

Even if we eliminating the cheating, what remains is the dangerous misconception that testing is a proxy for teaching

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One of the biggest ironies of the Atlanta public schools testing scandal — in which 35 educators have been indicted on racketeering, theft and corruption charges for artificially inflating students’ test results — is that the faked scores prevented some schools from accessing three quarters of a million dollars in federal money to support struggling learners because they no longer qualified for help. The impact on individual children was devastating. One mother quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution described her fruitless search for reading support for her 9-year-old daughter, who was performing at the bottom of her reading group. The child’s phony test score showed improvement, so now, in high school, she reads only at a fifth-grade level.

Superintendent Erroll B. Davis has called for mandatory ethics training for all staff and increased security measures, such as “locked safe rooms, tighter chains of custody and clearer test protocols to prevent improprieties and tampering.” Schools with suspicious improvements will trigger automatic audits, he says, in order to “ensure that our assessments serve children, not adults.”

But this is a little like arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We need a deeper examination of the root causes of this disaster.

(MORE: Harvard Cheating Scandal: Is Academic Dishonesty on the Rise?)

Even if we eliminate the cheating, what remains is a broken system built on the dangerous misconception that testing is a proxy for actual teaching and learning. Somehow, along the path of good intentions, testing stopped being seen as a diagnostic tool to guide good instruction and became, instead, the instruction itself. It’s as if a patient were given a biopsy, learned she had cancer and was then told that no further medical treatment was necessary. If that didn’t sound quite right, we could just fire the doctor who ordered the test or scratch out the patient’s results and mark “cured” in the file.

This may seem like hyperbole, but it’s not too far from what’s happening in schools these days. Current state-mandated testing is far too narrowly focused and decontextualized to reflect the skills students need to learn in the 21st century. And the endless teaching to the test takes away from the time students could be learning how to construct a thoughtful argument, analyze a work of literature or grasp good citizenry.

George Madaus and Terrence Lee-St. John, in Defending Childhood, describe the myriad negative consequences of our test-taking mania: hours wasted taking tests to prepare for a test, children with stomach aches or sleep disturbances from test-taking anxiety, very young children deemed “not ready” to learn, ballooning administrative costs and demoralized teachers and parents, dramatic decreases in recess, physical education and music classes. The authors note that many standardized tests don’t even measure what they claim to be measuring, and even small changes in test format or wording can produce differences in results that have serious consequences for a child’s future prospects in school.

(MORE: In Defense of School Testing)

Equally concerning are all the important academic skills kids are denied when they spend precious school (and homework) hours bogged down in standardized-testing quicksand: the ability to think deliberatively about problems,  synthesize material across disciplines, struggle with complexity and uncertainty and appreciate the role of the arts in understanding the human condition. Is it any surprise that a whole school of teachers in Seattle recently refused to put up with this charade?

The great strength of the American education system — its ability to cultivate flexible, creative thinkers — has been lost in our testing madness. Maybe it’s time for a little American-style civil disobedience. What if all the kids in the U.S. answered the multiple-choice tests randomly or simply left the bubbles blank? What would we do, then, with a whole country whose educational system “needs improvement”? That would certainly be a teachable moment.

MORE: Why It’s Time to Get Rid of Standardized Tests


Your closing statement makes me sick...."What if all the kids in the U.S. answered the multiple-choice tests randomly or simply left the bubbles blank? What would we do, then, with a whole country whose educational system “needs improvement”?   Tests have and serve a purpose.  If someone is paying attention and actually LEARNING the material as the year progresses then the test is merely a confirmation of what they've learned.  If they haven't b/c of a lack of personal discipline(failure of parenting), they yes, they have to cram etc.  Currently MANY children have parents who are completely uninvolved with the rearing of their child and couldn't care less about what happens at the babysitters' house, oops, I mean school.  THAT is the real problem. Parents aren't at all instilling in their children that school is the more important and fundamental building block for their future. For d*amn sake we have parents that complain about their kids receiving homework!!!  Too many cheat at every single opportunity, copying homework etc so they're not at all learning as they go...hence why the tests are so hard.  Too many have this "hurry up and get done" attitude without at all trying to actually LEARN the material.  The parents haven't instilled in them how valuable it is. Flat out, the schools job is to provide instruction, it is the PARENTS job to ensure their own child is keeping up on assignments and how they do on tests(i.e. a D means more study time, less XBOX). Ask a teacher, they'll tell you how empty parent teacher nights are.  How there isn't a ounce of discipline in the children they teach. Many parents are far too selfish with their time....hence how "common sense" is becoming rare.


What is REALLY scandalous is that virtually the same thing happened in DC as in Atlanta and, last night, John Merrow of PBS reported on this, due to the emergence of a memo suggesting Rhee was fully aware of it and covered it up, but I cannot find even one article where Time has reported on that today, "Michelle Rhee's Reign of Error"  http://takingnote.learningmatters.tv/?p=6232 

When are you going to report the truth about Rhee, who has been pushing corporate education "reform" across the country, as if everyone should be following her model, which was not a miracle but another terrible scam? 


If the kids were told to exhibit civil disobedience by random answering or leaving the test blank, they would be penalized by being left back, placed in programs or schools beneath their levels, or ostracized by teachers for "betraying" them.   Civil disobedience by kids?  Making this a Children's Crusade would be despicable, just as imposing this testing craziness on teachers and children is despicable. Another awful legacy from Bush's NCLB program.


If the stakes of the tests are high, of course that will incentivize the cheating. The author talks as if the problem can be solved merely by ethics training for school staff. If' you tie teachers livelihoods to tests, you will always have dishonesty.  

However, if you use test scores to improve learning, provide staff with additional professional development based on test scores, and not fire them based on one low score, we might stop teacher dropout rates, improve teaching practices and overall, improve student achievement. That's a school every teacher wants to work at. 

Gary Johnston



hummingbird like.author.displayName 1 Like

The children lose, of course. The people who run our school systems think they know everything eg. Mayor Bloomberg in NYC. They don't listen to the opinions of others and will keep enforcing policies that don't work. NYS will eventually reach the point where there's even more standardized tests and teachers will need a doctoral degree. I discourage young people from choosing teaching as a career as you get a ton of blame, little support and a salary that isn't worth having a Masters degree.


@ctuckerprof The kids & the state of education in APS have been forgotten in all of this, nothing's changed they're still getting cheated.


On March 12 the Texas House Education Committee approved HB 5, a bill sponsored by Rep. Jimmie Aycock, R-Killeen, that would reduce the number of standardized tests Texas high school students are required to take and eliminate a rule that requires students’ scores on those tests to count toward 15 percent of their final grades. Although the bill has yet to pass both the House and the Senate, its progress makes it more likely much needed repair to the state’s dysfunctional educational assessment program.

Under the state’s current standardized testing scheme, the STAAR exams, students at public high schools take a total of 15 tests covering five subject areas: one each year in math, science, social studies and English, which is split into reading and writing sections. The so-called “15 percent rule” requires that students’ scores on these tests count toward 15 percent of their final grades in each subject area. A lack of guidelines for translating test scores into grades has made implementation of the rule inconsistent across school districts, leading to its suspension for each of the two years it has been in place.

Aycock’s bill follows nearly two years of outcry from educators and parents across the state who are concerned that the current testing routine puts too much pressure on students and fails to assess intellectual growth accurately.

Nearly 86 percent of Texas school districts have passed resolutions condemning the current testing system, according to Aycock. And last year, the superintendents of nine North Texas school districts authored a letter criticizing the state’s testing strategy in particular and educational model in general, saying, “The system of the past will not prepare our students to lead in the future, and neither will the standardized tests that so dominate instructional time.”


Matt_Ellis like.author.displayName 1 Like

@gysgt213- too much pressure on students? Really? All students have had to pass tests to advance grades in the past, haven't they? Are we going to design a system that advances students without tests, without pressure to perform? Is this person thinking about what they are writing before they publish.

Also ludicrous is the statement that standardized testing "fails to assess intellectual growth accurately."

It is clear that there is confusion between standardized tests and standardized testing policies. What administrators and school boards do with the data they receive from the standardized tests is separate from the tests themselves.

There are major advantages to standardized testing over the old school system that I have covered below, but I will recount again. Reliability of measure. Repeatability and reproducibility. Consistency of content across geographies. As imperfect as standardized testing may be in the early stages of its implementation, it must be understood that standardized testing is superior to the old school methods in EVERY way.


@gysgt213 - too much pressure 15% of the grade???????????????????????????????????


Texas says testing is out of control. 


IN WHAT is being called an "open rebellion" against standardized testing in public schools, parents, teachers and even administrators are speaking out as the mania for standardized testing gets ratcheted up in Texas amid devastating budget cuts.

Forty-six school boards across the state have signed onto a resolutiondeclaring that high-stakes standardized testing is "strangling our public schools." And more districts in Texas' big metropolitan areas are considering adopting the resolution.

This is the latest development in the debate about public education in Texas as our schools are thrown into crisis, caught in a vice between $5.4 billion in budget cuts and new "accountability" standards passed by the legislature.


fuertecorazon like.author.displayName 1 Like

@TIME @TIMEIdeas Any time u apply monetary rewards there will b cheating whether it be sports education banking and especially politics

tschorr like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

I have been a teacher in a lower socioeconomic district for 20 years and our schools have done relatively well on state testing. There are many factors people outside of this setting don't even begin to consider when discussing standardized testing and school performance. Just one of those factors is student turnover in a school population where most students live in low rent government housing. Schools in our district that have a large majority of students who live in low rent subsidized housing have a huge turnover ratio of up to 50+% a year. There are many factors outside of school that cause these families to move so frequently. That means a teacher not only has a very short time to make an impact on his or her students but the school itself has them for a very short period of time. In a perfect world where an elementary school had a student from K-5th grade, or a teacher had a student for a full school year you could potentially use testing to measure the progress of students at the school or in the classroom. But in a situation where you have a different group of students at the start of the year than at the end of it, and where a school has just a small fraction of students who remain there for 2 or 3 years standardized testing is of no real value at all in evaluating the effectiveness of a teacher or a school.    


Ms. Christakis' arguments are nonsense.  Through the 1970's era of touchy-feely teaching, when self-esteem was more important than math and science, we let American education slide into a crack from which it has never recovered -- and that is largely the fault of professional administrators like Ms. Christakis, that knew how to make things "better."  Now we're stuck with testing, because we have to have a way to objectively determine what students are learning, whether teachers are performing, and whether either are improving.  The testing has demonized by the educational literati because that knowledge leads to accountability -- a dread concept to those who find it unfair to be evaluated based on their own performance.  Ms. Christakis' arguments include sweeping, unsupported conclusions like, "many standardized tests don’t even measure what they claim to be measuring," which is another way of saying not all standardized tests are perfect, therefore they're all hopelessly flawed.  This betrays the delusional utopia through which educational administrators view the world.  What education needs is a little less hand-wringing, and a little more chalkboard. 

elchristakis like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@fsdbm2 I highly recommend to you and other commenters the excellent book by Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Diane Ravitch was one of the biggest and most vocal proponents of the "accountability" reform movement of the early 2000's (from which our current testing mania emerged). She has made a 180 degree turn away from her original positions - and has written widely about how and why she changed her views so dramatically. Basically, she abandoned her faith in the high-stakes testing culture because it simply doesn't deliver what it promised, and the time and money spent on this increasingly pervasive testing has resulted in the loss of what little academic and intellectual vigor we had in the system. The high stakes testing hasn't solved the problems of our terrible schools; it has merely stifled the creativity and ingenuity and excellence out of the good ones. I believe you are caricaturing my arguments. I'm not at all opposed to accountability or effective measures of student learning and achievement. But dumbed down and narrowly focused testing, which comes at earlier ages and ignores major areas of learning, is simply not panning out. You're wrong to suggest that the "liberati" (whatever that means) don't believe in standards. Nothing could be further from the truth in my case. However, I don't believe in stupid standards, nor do I believe in bogus accountability. I do believe in creating the conditions that promote good teaching and actual learning. No Child Left Behind was largely well-intended but it hasn't yielded results because, by definition, it can't when it's not linked to good curriculum, effective teaching, or sound pedagogy. These testing scandals are just the tip of the iceberg of this shell game. There's no 'there" there in this approach, plain and simple. There has never been a free lunch, educationally speaking, as much as many educators, parents, and politicians wish it so. See my comments, below, advocating for a more competent and committed teacher workforce through - drumroll, please - actual market forces. It's worked elsewhere.

Matt_Ellis like.author.displayName 1 Like

@elchristakis - Ms. Christakis, It is clear to me now that you have not precisely worded your thesis in your original essay, and have now qualified your point by adding the term "high-stakes" to your claims about testing. It is clear that you have inappropriately targeted the concept of standardized testing, when really your objection is with test score policy, which are absolutely different things. Please, when you represent yourself as an authority on a subject, refine your thinking about your thesis and communicate your assertions precisely.

To advocate discarding standardized testing because policy makers are ill-equipped to make effective policies based on the data the tests provide is like tossing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater. Or perhaps a better metaphor would be blaming the ruler because your foot-long subway sandwich is only 11 inches long.

I would really like to see the reference to support your claim that standardized testing has "stifled the creativity and ingenuity and excellence out of the good ones [schools]". Please show me that data, because I'm really sceptical of that.


@RobertIvey    Finland also has half the number of students as New York City.

RobertIvey like.author.displayName 1 Like

You might want to look at Finland currently the No 1 Schools in the World that puts zero faith in standardized testing.

A new global league table, produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit for Pearson, has found Finland to be the best education system in the world.

The rankings combined international test results and data such as graduation rates between 2006 and 2010, the BBC reports.

For Finland, this is no fluke. Since it implemented huge education reforms 40 years ago, the country's school system has consistently come in at the top for the international rankings for education systems.

But how do they do it?

It's simple — by going against the evaluation-driven, centralized model that much of the Western world uses.

Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/finlands-education-system-best-in-world-2012-11?op=1#ixzz2PUvhB2re


There's another very good reason for enforcement of standards that I did not mention before. Students move.

I have personal experience with this. I went from a large city public school in the third grade to a private school in a distant state for the fourth grade, and returned to the same city public school for the fifth grade. When I started in the fourth grade private school, initially I had to adjust rapidly to an advanced level to catch up to my peers, and then when I returned to the public school, by then I was significantly farther advanced than the same peers whom I had shared classrooms just a year earlier. In fact, I was nearly a full year ahead at that time, so in effect I lost nearly a year of my potential development. Fortunately for me this was not a devastating event, but for many, this type of issue can severely discourage or alienate a child.

With standards, a student could change classrooms, schools or interstate,and still have a reasonable expectation of resuming subjects at a comparable place and performing at a similar level to which they are accustomed. Under the old school system, there was NOTHING in place to ensure that.


In my STEM world testing all that can demonstrate mastery of the subjecy


@jb411208 - Uh... what?


@Matt_Ellis @jb411208 Crazy iPad has a mind of its own

...testing is all... ...subject.


@Matt_Ellis @jb411208

I am a mechanical engineer. That is applied physics, so to say. I did lots Science Technology Engineering and Math course work from 7th grade to university graduation. Tests are critical to measuring mastery of the course work which is needed to go on to higher level work.

JulieAndrews like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

When testing is tied to money, the students who need the most help will have an even more difficult time getting it.

I am a new teacher in a low-performing tribal school (my fourth year).  Most of my Middle School students are performing at 3rd-5th grade in Reading, Writing, and Math.  Attendance is not encouraged at home, physical assaults on staff are not rare, and there have been five principals and two different superintendents in the past ten years.  This school has a TREMENDOUS difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers.  We get very few applicants, and most are inadequate.  The few quality teachers we have had since I have been here have left.

I have made gains, but it's almost impossible to get all to grade level for the core subjects in one year.  Imagine if I'll lose $5000 this year unless I teach in a better school.  I'm still paying off student loans.  That's what's real, not what the gadflies think about "academic irresponsibility."

Connecting pay to testing scores only means that the rich will get richer, and the poor will get poorer.

Matt_Ellis like.author.displayName 1 Like

@JulieAndrews - I understand and appreciate your sacrifice to be a teacher. I know it is hard, my mother was a school secretary in an inner city elementary school for nearly 20 years, and relayed countless stories of the challenges to me.

You may call me a gadfly if you like. Ms. Christakos suggesting that students refuse to complete standardized test forms is academically irresponsible is clearly not a rational solution to the problem, and would only bring harm to those foolish enough to heed that suggestion, and their teachers.

Your comments highlight what is the actual issue here, which is not what Ms. Christakos would have you believe, that it is testing that is at fault, but rather what is done with the data.

I agree that using the test results to punish teachers is inappropriate. I suggested that the data from standardized testing be applied by administrators and teachers to diagnose and adjust their priorities and techniques in order to make progress towards the standards. However, that being said, I do believe that the data can over a long enough time period, identify some teachers who are not enabling their students to achieve that goal.

lordofthefly like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

As an Atlanta resident, I will tell you the worst part, because you have it wrong. It is that a limp school board and a weak city government allowed this kind of scandal to unfold. Atlanta Schools have for decades been a source of humiliation and downright shame for the city. Other metro area school systems have high to exceptional national rankings. Mayor Kassim Reed has invested his time in helping billionaire Arthur Blank get funding for a new stadium for the mostly losing Atlanta Falcons. Why doesn't he get how vital a strong educational system is to the welfare and economy of the city he runs? (To note, he, like other Atlanta mayors, is mostly a showboat.)

The second worst aspect is that Supt. Beverly Hall is still on this side of prison bars. She was allowed to take her $120,000 bonus for the "great" test scores and to leave the scene of the crime, this even as the scandal was unfolding. Government funding? It would not have been needed if 40 years ago the city had elected capable leaders as mayor, commission and school board. They did not. They still can't manage to do this.


I just re-read the article and I see that the last paragraph amounts to academic irresponsibility. I think most would agree that the banking system and the regulation thereof “needs improvement.” Ms. Christakis, should we all stop paying our mortgages?

MyTwoCents like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

the largest problem in our public schools is overcrowding.  Students do not have any one on one time with teachers. They are teaching to classes of 30+ students.  Growing up if I had a problem in school, the teacher would have called my parents in to discuss where I was falling behind.  Today, the schools in my district have everything on a Portal where parents can see it. While this is nice to see, many tests and information regarding them aren't always uploaded in a timely manner.  When you want to discuss something with your teacher, you are directed to this portal. There is no face-to-face any longer until those parent/teacher conference days, and often by that time, your child is already behind.

Do you ever wonder why there are so many learning centers popping up everywhere?  It isn't because we are trying to get our kids ahead.  It is because the teachers are not able to teach to these classrooms in an effective manner.  

And yes, "teaching to the test" is absurd!  I learned more in school and had many more classes than my children today do.  We had foreign language and PE every day.  My children don't even get a foreign language until late in middle school (if even then).  And PE is once every 3 or 4 days...and we wonder why there is an obesity epidemic.

lordofthefly like.author.displayName 1 Like


I don't totally disagree but that is not the problem in Atlanta. Incapable leadership runs through every branch of government we have - including the Atlanta School Board. Actually, it is not just incompetence but corruption. Reminds me of the top, sorry leadership we also see in the military, especially the Army, and in our government. And it's all the very top.

DanMorgan1 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Most Liberals hate the testing idea. It quantifies their failures in terms that even their own failing students can understand. 

DeweySayenoff like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@DanMorgan1 It's the children of conservatives who are suffering.  All - not some, but all - research studies into the backgrounds of various political parties show that the conservatives are the least capable thinkers and have an average IQ lower than the other two (Liberal, in second place, and moderates in first).  In fact, they tend to tie with terrorists.


@DeweySayenoff @DanMorgan1 

It's silly to get partisan with this. but as a resident of Atlanta, I can tell you that an equal number of liberals and conservatives send their children to private schools. The problems in the schools boil down to poor leadership issue, as well as one of corruption. Neither of those is partisan. If you want to get political, balance your Bill Clintons and Anthony Weiners against David Vitters and David Petraeuses (not elected but a rotten to the core conservative who may run for president). I would say there's enough corruption to go around in both parties.


@DeweySayenoff @DanMorgan1 And this crap has what to do with my comment? Your reading comprehension skills must have been taught by a unionized teacher in a public school.