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

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images
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

99 comments
watsoncis
watsoncis

Concerning the Atlanta School scandal,just follow the money trail who received 1 billion dollars to build and refurbish schools in Atlanta, who was the contractor and who sat on the board of the company, who was the real master minds behind the whole thing

driventowinit
driventowinit

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.

cosmictinkerer
cosmictinkerer

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? 

JennySmith1
JennySmith1

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.

GaryJohnston1
GaryJohnston1

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

http://teachingaheadofthecurve.blogspot.com/

 

hummingbird
hummingbird

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.

washingtonce
washingtonce

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

gysgt213
gysgt213

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.”

http://www.dailytexanonline.com/opinion/2013/03/20/texas%E2%80%99-testing-fails-students

gysgt213
gysgt213

Texas says testing is out of control. 

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nyceducationnews/message/42854

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.

http://socialistworker.org/2012/03/21/fighting-testing-mania-in-texas

fuertecorazon
fuertecorazon

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

tschorr
tschorr

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.    

fsdbm2
fsdbm2

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. 



Matt_Ellis
Matt_Ellis

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.

jb411208
jb411208

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

JulieAndrews
JulieAndrews

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.


lordofthefly
lordofthefly

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.

Matt_Ellis
Matt_Ellis

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
MyTwoCents

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.

DanMorgan1
DanMorgan1

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

brucecota
brucecota

Here's another problem ... Education professionals (and very high ranking ones!)  who care more about their bonusses than they do about educating kids!

How do you fix *that*?

Matt_Ellis
Matt_Ellis

Please read my posts from oldest to newest.

Of course the new testing system has flaws, it would have been foolish to believe that a perfect system would erupt instantaneously. As was pointed out by another commentor to this article, Ms. Christakis and most critics criticize, but offer no solutions, making their assertions not worth the air or print upon which they are propagated. My observation is that the difficulties that the school testing system has encountered are primarily caused by the resistance of teachers and administrators who fear exposure and change. Ms. Christakis, please stop questioning that a standardized testing system is necessary, you are mistaken. Please focus your efforts on resolving the institutional resistance to long-overdue changes to the old school system.

Matt_Ellis
Matt_Ellis

The author of this article is resorting to assinine arguments against school testing. The metaphor of the physician and cancer treatment to school testing is offensive. There is no obstacle to school administrators taking the results of standardized testing to assess strengths and weaknesses of the assessed teacher or school to adjust priorities and/or techniques, just as a physician would devise a treatment for a patient based on his or her testing and diagnosis. Simply ridiculous.

Usually I observe arguments against school testing based on the faults of the testing system, also employed by the author. Ms. Christakis cites the Atlanta incident as evidence that the concept of school testing itself is flawed. Does Ms. Christakis believe that under the old school system that all teachers always assessed their students most honorably? Especially considering that they themselves were their only source of assessment of their own effectiveness? That system was ripe for widespread abuse, and, of course, there was no systematic way to check, was there?

Matt_Ellis
Matt_Ellis

The old school method was to rely on teachers to be the measurement tool of a student's learning. In that system, what does the grade of C mean? It means nothing, it's worthless. Lacking a system that utilizes a standardized method for comparing results across classrooms and geographies, a parent would be prefectly justified in asking a teacher who had assignd their child a poor grade to "prove that my child is performing below average for children of his or her age across the U.S.," which would be impossible. Tens of thousands of teachers,  the product of a variety of institutions and learning systems was far, far, far from a reliable, calibrated measurement system of learning effectiveness.

The fact that the necessity of a standardized measurement system for teacher effectiveness is questioned by educated people is astounding to me. Anyone who speaks out against standardized school testing is clearly ignorant of this most basic concept of measurement. Arguments against testing should be recognized by what they are, at best, stubborn resistance to change, and at worst, expressions of fear of exposure of incompetance.

Matt_Ellis
Matt_Ellis

The real scandal about the situation is that despite Erika Christakis' and many other policy influencing educators' advanced degrees and Ivy-League associations, they are inexplicably ignorant of a fundamental concept of testing (or might we postulate that the absence of its discussion is deliberate?).

It is absolutely essential that schools nationwide participate in a standardized means of assessing their effectiveness.

A test is an assessment, and an assessment is a measurement tool. The fundamental concept of school testing that is not understood is Gauge Repeatability and Reproducibility. Imagine attempting to build a house without the ability to measure lengths of wood without a standard gauge. Lacking a standard measurement tool would make constructing a house very difficult, and nearly impossible to construct a replica. Extend this idea to the necessity of standards of weight, volume, velocity, etc. Imagine a world without the ability to replicate or reproduce housing, prepared foods, transportation. At the core of modern civilization itself is the absolute critical existence of standard measurement.

TheMontessoriObserver
TheMontessoriObserver

Montessori schools (public and private) practice, as a matter of basic philosophy, many of the elements you describe: "the ability to think deliberatively about problems; to synthesize material across disciplines; to struggle with complexity and uncertainty"—the "ability to cultivate flexible, creative thinkers"—and a diminished emphasis on testing.

Some such schools test, to reassure parents, to give children the real-life experience, and as one element of an accountability process.  Many minimize the testing or don't test at all.  With three-year age groups and teachers who really get to build relationships with students, it's easy to tell who needs support.  And with a broader goal of fostering the development of independent thinkers and engaged, curious learners, testing becomes a small part of a much bigger picture.

The Montessori Observer

rennis2000_6
rennis2000_6

Whats really scandlous about the school testing scandal, is the truth that you and people like you still seem to ignore. Although money is an obvious excuse for what was happening the real story is not that simple. For many years you have pushed an agenda, trying to show atlanta as an example of blacks in leading a community of their own successfully. now we see the fraud exposed. great black run schools with great success, great black colleges with high sat scores and high minority admissions. Just recently several southern black college administrators admitted schools had falsified minority sats score averages, again to give a false impression of black success. Falsehoods designed to further the liberal agenda. This is no surprise. When a reporter recently wrote a story about minority enrollment he was offended that things such as, and i quote "  personal qualities, like “character,” “responsibility,” “insight,” “maturity” and “concern for others and for the community.” went into the admissions process. Well those my friend are just the things that need to be taken into account. Lets ask ourselves this over a 9 year period last decade Oklahoma didnt graduate a single african american athlete, yet a school like Standford had a 95% graduation rate of student athletes, and Notre Dame had even better at 99%, whats the difference. Simple those schools wont just take anyone, and they don't let the trash in

meddevguy
meddevguy

The reaction is "We don't need no steenking testing"? How about even tougher testing, but understand that the parents and the children's society are as much to blame for imperfect learning or exceptional students. That would mean to yes, look at the scores in evaluating teachers, but, not make it a knock out, just a reason to further investigate.

And definitely NOT a federal issue. Atlanta and the state of Georgia certainly have enough resource and clout to hire and motivate the best teachers and are local to the problem of kids influencing other kids to abandon their studies. The families of Atlanta have the right to decide EVERYTHING that happens to their own children without a Federal Leviathan dictating solutions crafted in the District of Columbia for the District of Columbia.

doubting_thomas
doubting_thomas

You are basically saying that we should keep the status quo but drop testing so that we can no longer see that the status quo is failing.

dlittrell
dlittrell

The problem isn't that the schools test too much, that teachers or administrators have some character defect, or that there was some better time in the past before we lost our way. Those are ritualized, meaningless complaints, sort of like an office manager saying "looks like someone has a case of the Mondays." Trite homily that does more harm than good.

The problem is that the schools are commodified. The schools are passive consumers of curricula, and aren't prepared to do anything much more demanding than go shopping for material each year. This is also why schools test so much: for administrators, teaching and coaching students aren't legitimate ends in themselves; they are literally attempting to purchase good test scores. The irony of taking the behavior of children as a fungible product subject to market forces is somehow lost on people who have (sadly) been given enough responsibility to do damage in the real world. 

In a better world, front line teachers would be as engaged with the material as they were with the students. Teaching material would be under an open license, like the MIT, GPL or Berkeley licenses; and teachers would be a real part of creating and evaluating curricula. They would actually have some skin in the game, rather than staffing detention centers and doing bad standup. Unfortunately, that world isn't here. Germany, maybe, but not here. In America, textbook publishers are in the business of making money, the overwhelming majority of parents are satisfied with the status quo, and teachers that buck the system are weeded out. Any talk of nonprofits and open licensing will have have people screaming about communism and quaking in fear of the rapture.

mindfulwhim
mindfulwhim

Most of these comments are being made by people who aren't educators who cannot even define "learning", let alone understand how to measure it.

Keep the focus on the "LEARNING", not on the teaching.

JoeCM
JoeCM

Assigning federal money to school by using school self evaluation tests was a mistake. How many people would resist to inflate their grades if money given to them depends on these grades?  Mandatory ethics training will not change human nature. If it was so easy then we would not need police, criminal courts, and expensive prison system. It would be much cheaper to implement mandatory ethics training in all schools. Also we will subject all our Congress members to the mandatory ethics training and we would not be irritated by their demagoguery, half truths and half lies, and lies. They will honestly discuss solutions best for our country, not pursuing legislature benefiting only people who finance their election campaign.

JimD
JimD

"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 learn good citizenry"

If teachers are teaching the course material they shouldn't have to teach to the test. It is the teacher and admin that focus on the test results If they are teaching to the test they are doing a disservice to their students

LindaJ.Qualey
LindaJ.Qualey

Just take a serious look at the innercity schools.  They are all failing, all run by liberal progressives.  Think about it...How does critical thinking help people reach success?  Through education. Why would they (the progressives) want that???

firmsoil
firmsoil

In California, even the government universities report that the majority of non-asian minority government school graduates are unqualified to attend college and have to undergo remedial courses (read taxpayers paying a second time or even more) before they can qualify to attend college level courses. The K-12 govt school system is a very corrupt (gives out these false high school diplomas to unqualified students) and is purposefully designed to keep these minority kids in failing government schools. Unfortunately it is the de facto education policy of California government crafted by politicians that receive large sums of money from those union bureaucrats that financially benefit from this corruption status quo.