Atlanta Cheating Scandal: The Real Story Behind Testing

Congratulations to Chris Hayes on the debut of his new 8 PM show, All In with Chris Hayes. Monday was the first show and it was a very successful one.

In this segment, Chris dives deep into the Atlanta cheating scandal which has led to the indictment of the superintendent and 34 teachers for changing students' answers on tests in order to score higher on the tests and secure more and better federal funding for their schools. I reported on it nearly two years ago and now the investigation has revealed disturbing trends relating to high-stakes testing, particularly in urban schools.


Prosecutors say that the educators cheated on the CRCT in order to reap “the benefit of financial rewards associated with high test scores.” Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), school districts which turn in low standardized test scores could be seriously penalized and even lose federal aid. Critics of NCLB and other recent school reform measures argue that the Atlanta cheating scandal is not an isolated incident of criminal activity.

“We don’t condone cheating, but when you have high-stakes testing, which are one-shot deals that don’t tell you whether a child is going to fail or succeed, the whole setup in terms of No Child Left Behind was unfair to children, unfair to educators,” Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers said to MSNBC Monday.

Since NCLB, signed in 2001, first mandated high-stakes testing in every state and tied it to federal funding, a wave of cheating scandals has swept the nation. In 2011, USA Todayinvestigated standardized test scores in six states and Washington, D.C., and found “1,610 examples of anomalies in which public school classes—a school’s entire fifth grade, for example—boasted what analysts regard as statistically rare, perhaps suspect, gains on state tests.”

Of course, this is the problem with the whole NCLB model. By rewarding the so-called high-performing schools which are not usually urban, inner city schools with more money and penalizing the schools that need those funds desperately in order to actually educate students, it turns the stakes for testing into nothing more than a temptation factory. This doesn't excuse the decisions those teachers and Hall made to cheat, but it does highlight the pressure teachers are under to deliver the numbers, by whatever means necessary.

There will be a lot of blame placed on those who chose to cheat, and rightly so. But simply blaming them without reaching up to Congress, Arne Duncan, and flawed education policy would be a lesson lost. In 2011, education reporter Dana Goldstein highlighted Arne Duncan's obtuse viewpoint then and now:

"The existence of cheating says nothing about the merits of testing," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan argued in the Washington Post this week, agreeing with such commentators asthe editors of the New York Times, David Brooks, and influential school reform philanthropist and blogger Whitney Tilson. They all advocate blaming the adult cheaters while absolving the policies to which they respond.

Without question, those who choose to cheat are cheaters and are responsible for that choice. It's wrong, however, to assume they are the only parties at fault. Goldstein gives some high profile examples in that report, including this one:

In Washington, D.C., a father became suspicious of his daughter's high math test scores, as the girl couldn't perform basic arithmetic functions. One of then-chancellor Michelle Rhee's favorite principals, Wayne Ryan of the Noyes Education Complex, responded by banning that parent from setting foot on campus. All in all, more than half of D.C. elementary schools, including Noyes, showed evidence of adult tampering with students' standardized test answer sheets under Rhee's administration, which paid principals and teachers up to $12,000 in annual bonuses for raising test scores. Wayne Ryan has since resigned in disgrace.

Michelle Rhee jumped out just in the nick of time, thanks to her big-money pals like Rupert Murdoch and Betsy DeVos. Had she stayed, it's likely she would be suffering the same fate as Beverly Hall.

Arne Duncan, Congress and the Obama administration needs to take a step back on education policy and start listening to teachers. We're squandering millions upon millions in taxpayer dollars to large corporate testing entities when those funds could be used to actually educate children. With textbooks, and supplies, and maybe dealing with the poverty issues a little more than we do right now, perhaps?

If no responsibility is taken for the pressures brought to bear that led Beverly Hall and her teachers to the dark side, this is an opportunity and lesson lost.

Bonus: The Virginia legislature is taking firm steps toward the Michigan model, where local school boards are overridden by a board cherry-picked by the governor. I predict this will not end well.


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