It could be instructive. Consider the Atlanta test-cheating scandal that Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter described as the “sickest thing that’s ever happened in this town.”
Recently, 11 former Atlanta teachers and administrators were convicted of racketeering in a far-reaching test-cheating conspiracy that resembled 40 documented cases in school districts across the nation, according to Education Week.
The convicted former educators were found guilty of conspiring to artificially inflate test scores by changing answers or guiding students to fill in the correct responses on Georgia’s 2009 annual assessment.
The depressing thought of former educators spending time behind bars invites critical questions about the Atlanta school district’s culture and environment when the cheating occurred.
What could have influenced teachers, administrators and test coordinators to violate the ethics of the profession? Because test-cheating happens in other cities, are there conditions that might be prompting educators to ignore the themes of professional ethics covered in teacher preparation courses?
In case you haven’t noticed, educational reformers like Michele Rhee — former chancellor of Washington, D.C., Public Schools — are determined to rate student learning and teacher performance by using standardized assessments.
Gaining momentum and increasing support, the proponents of this philosophy endorse the notion that high test scores are a good indicator of teacher quality.
Therefore, teachers of high scoring students are regarded as effective and must be retained. Reformers think bonuses should be paid to teachers who can “guide” their students to high test scores.
Conversely, reformers think low test scores are an indicator that the teachers of low scoring students are ineffective and should be fired. On the other side of this national philosophical debate about high-stakes testing stands Diane Ravitch — former U.S. assistant secretary of education. She thinks test scores are not the best way to measure student learning and the effectiveness of teacher performance.
According to Education Week, the high-stakes testing debate focuses on the frequency of testing, the intense pressure on teachers and principals to increase test scores because job security and bonuses are often tied to those scores and the ease by which scores can be manipulated.
While not condoning the conduct of the former educators in Atlanta and across the nation, empathic people might be able to imagine the conditions that influenced them to cheat. According to Education Week, prosecutors argued that the former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall’s call for better test scores was at the core of the conspiracy.
The leader of any organization has a major effect on its culture and environment. Could the educators in Atlanta and elsewhere have been pressured to obtain higher test scores or else risk termination? Were they promised bonuses for higher test scores?
Not many years ago a television commercial showed keys perched in the ignition of an unlocked car. After a few seconds, viewers heard the message, “Don’t make a good boy go bad.”
Educational reformers need to accept the wisdom expressed in that message.
The sickest thing that’s ever happened in this nation is the encouraged belief that student learning and teacher quality can be accurately and sufficiently measured by high-stakes tests.
Roger C. Williams Jr., Ed.D. is a retired principal, counselor and instrumental music teacher. He lives in Lee’s Summit. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.