No Thaw Soon

       Three weeks ago, the Georgia governor’s office capped its investigation of Atlanta’s schools with a scathing 800-page report. It described with horrific detail the school district’s “culture of cheating.” In fact, investigators discovered that teachers and principals had been changing student answers on standardized exams at 44 of the 56 schools examined. Eighty-two educators admitted to altering tests, and their testimony implicated 96 others.
        Many additional districts are facing similar scrutiny, including now the District of Columbia, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
       Atlanta’s debacle is particularly galling, however, given the amount of accolades the district had received for its meteoric rise in test scores. Philanthropies such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had showered the district with grants, while the superintendent, Beverly Hall, had accepted numerous awards including 2009 National Superintendent of the Year from the American Association of School Administrators.
       But it was all a sham. Worse, many children who should have received additional support failed to because of their inflated, false scores.
       The July 13th issue of Education Week highlighted some of the more sensational narratives in the Georgia Governor’s Office report, including that of a teacher who surreptitiously photographed the test storage room so that, when he later broke in, he could leave everything as it was; of a principal who wore gloves when she changed answers to keep her fingerprints off student exams; of veteran teachers altering new teachers’ tests for them until they trusted the newbies enough to accept them into their cheating fold; of teachers holding weekend “[test] changing parties” at their homes.
       It boggles the mind. It deadens the soul.
       How shaming to learn that so many of my colleagues could betray their vocation, their profession, their integrity, and especially their students!
       It is true that Superintendent Hall and her administrative minions had intimidated teachers. They’d threatened would-be whistle-blowers. And one principal had even forced a teacher with low test scores to crawl beneath a table during a faculty meeting.
       Even so, none of that excuses the heinous behavior of so many Atlanta educators, and so many others who knew of it but remained silent.
       A silver lining to this despicable affair could be that it would add fuel to the increasing debate about the merits of high stakes testing. But, honestly, it seems inexplicable that there could still be any debate at all since research, including most recently that of the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) and the National Research Council, has decried such testing as, at best, ineffective at improving real student achievement.
       The trouble is, U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan has once again turned a deaf ear to such research, even though he, himself, commissioned the NCEE report. Instead, he used Atlanta to argue for more testing: “This unfortunate incident highlights the need for transparency and accountability throughout our system…. There are districts across Georgia and across the country that are facing the same expectation to perform that are making genuine progress without cheating.”
       Genuine? Yes, many schools have raised state test scores. But how? By “teaching” (drilling and killing) to a narrow fill-in-the-bubble test, eschewing all knowledge and skills not on it, such as creative and higher-ordered thinking. By focusing on students just below proficiency (cherry picking) while abandoning the kids at the bottom. By doing nothing to discourage drop outs since those kids would have brought down test scores anyway.
       Or, as some whole states have done, by simply lowering the score required for proficiency (and then shamelessly crowing about a remarkable increase of proficient students).
       There are many ways to cheat.
       The obvious, embarrassing fact is that high stakes testing—and the fear it engenders—has brought out the worst in public education, not the best. The cheating in Atlanta and elsewhere is but the tip of a massive educational malpractice iceberg.
       But, since Duncan is urging Congress to quickly reauthorize No Child Left Behind and its centerpiece, high stakes testing, there is little likelihood of a thaw any time soon. 

Published August 1st, 2011, in The Argus and The Daily Review (Bay Area News Group)

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