The Atlanta Cheating Scandal, Part III: Returning the Classroom to Its Rightful Owners

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In the first installment of this three part series, we discussed the recent conviction of 11 Atlanta educators, charged with varying degrees of involvement in the school district's widespread cheating scandal. Just to refresh your memory, the teachers, principals, and administrators were charged with racketeering for participating in the falsification of outcomes on state-standardized tests.

However, the trial that stretched out across six years produced very little true reflection on the internal pressure and broader policy failures that created this atmosphere of rampant dishonesty.

In the second part of our series, we attempted to cast a brighter light on those very pressures and failures by outlining the undue influence that the private testing industry levies over educational policy. Even as headlines blasted juicy tidbits about Atlanta teachers gathering together for ‘eraser parties,' few journalists probed the far more problematic backroom relationship between lawmakers and testing industry leaders. The second installment considers the systemic conditions that made the Atlanta cheating scandal possible, perhaps even probable.

Today—in consideration of the disturbing events in Atlanta and in light of the distressing revelations regarding the testing industry—we'd like to offer a few constructive suggestions. Though the political obstacles to each of these recommendations are considerable, each is nonetheless based in fact and rationality, two virtues that are decidedly not associated with the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT).

Teach First, Test Second

Let's start with the basics here. Kids go to school to learn. Testing should only be a natural byproduct of that priority, not the priority itself.

Unfortunately, after nearly a decade-and-a-half of post-NCLB testing, the tail is clearly wagging the dog. Teaching has become a mere means to facilitating the test, teachers mere proctors…or worse. Starting with the case in Atlanta and expanding into every single other district where evidence of institutional cheating has surfaced, we have seen educational professionals who are no longer teachers. They are whatever survival dictates, be it testing administrators, cheaters, or defendants.

Today's test-first/teach-second philosophy deprives students of the creativity of great teachers, deprives teachers of the curricular freedom to nurture student potential, and deprives both students and teachers of the knowledge, discovery, and personal growth that make the tedium of school otherwise tolerable. And in such an environment, what have we left our teachers to do but test?

The time has come to reverse the cause and effect. The policy demand for statistical accountability drives everything today, from the way that federal and state moneys are distributed to the way that students spend their time in the classroom. Accountability is the hallucinogen behind our imaginary need for so much testing. And it prevents us from seeing just how much our students need real teachers and real learning opportunities.

At its most basic, testing is designed to show what students have learned. If all they're learning is how to take the test, these findings will be fairly vacuous. This is especially true if the pressure to achieve certain results and the consequences of the failure to do so are so great that these findings simply cannot be trusted.

Testing should be increasingly designed to follow curriculum, to reflect curriculum, and to evaluate student knowledge based on curriculum. Seems obvious, right? But we've got it the other way around right now. Perhaps lawmakers need to be reminded that teaching and learning are the point of education. Every aspect of testing should be to further these objectives. For more than a decade now, teaching and learning have been incidental.

Standardized testing has been the chief objective. It is, however, long overdue for a demotion.

Stop “Crime and Punishment” Testing

The only way to shake up the pecking order between teachers and testing is to release the former from the draconian chokehold of the latter. What took place in Atlanta simply could not have happened without the fear and intimidation that ran rampant though the district. This fear and intimidation would, in turn, not have been possible without the punitive nature of our federal and state testing policies. From No Child Left Behind under George W. Bush to President Obama's Race To the Top, the consequence of performance failures could be readily weaponized.

Perhaps not every district chose to brandish the policies that way, but in places like Atlanta, it is clear just how explosive a system like this can become. Punishing teachers, schools, and districts ultimately manifests as a punishment of students, no matter how you phrase it in the next annual policy report.

In Atlanta, the criminally under-discussed fallout of the cheating scandal is something that students continue to feel today. According to an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, many feel that they've been underestimated and overlooked in all of this, that the institutionalized dishonesty of entrusted educational professionals only further confirmed the low expectations against which so many of these students must already struggle.

Punishing the alleged perpetrators of low standardized test scores as though these constitute criminal behavior has actually produced criminal behavior. You could call it a self-fulfilling prophecy but that seems almost too passive a characterization of what happened in Atlanta and, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in at least 200 other American school districts. The threat of punishment shifted, distorted, and upended the priorities by which teachers approach their students, dedicate their energy, and advance in their careers.

We must concede that the punitive dimensions of the current testing regime are destructive, plain and simple. Any and all penalties relating to poor testing performance should be abolished and supplanted by intervention strategies and meaningful resource support where appropriate.

It also wouldn't hurt to actually use testing outcomes to make life better for students and teachers. To wit…

Use Diagnostic Information To Make Diagnoses

Imagine going to your doctor and getting your blood pressure taken. You ask the doctor how it looks and he tells you, “This doesn't concern you. I'm sending this to a super-secret government lab where some bald guys in suits can figure out who's to blame for broader sociological patterns of high blood pressure. If they don't like what they see, I'm afraid I'll have to cut off your medical attention entirely.”

How would you know where you stand? Should you be exercising more? Should you maybe stop Supersizing it at the drive-thru? What of CrossFit, and Atkins, and these 10 days cleanses all your granola friends are doing? What should you do and how could you possibly know without the help of this presumably qualified professional?

Well, this is pretty much what we've been doing to our students. The standardized testing obsession that has grown so robustly since the 2001 passage of No Child Left Behind is distinguished by a unique peculiarity. That is, it does literally nothing, nada, zero, zilch, to help children become better students. It does nothing to help teachers become better educators. And it does nothing to help troubled schools become safe and constructive learning environments.

This is the big, obvious, and inescapable reality of the current testing regime. As we have noted throughout this multi-part series on the Atlanta cheating scandal, among the biggest crimes is the deprivation of insight, change, and improvement manifested in our schools as a consequence of test scores. Blame is assigned. Punishment is doled out. Policy is debated.

What never changes are the curricula, intervention strategies, pedagogical approaches, and countless other tragically stagnant or otherwise regressive dimensions of the student experience. Among the recommendations offered here, this is the lowest hanging fruit.

It should seem hardly controversial to recommend that the scores yielded by standardized tests be used to promote reform. If standardized testing reveals a shortfall in literacy performance among 3rd graders in a specific region, it should be incumbent upon policy-makers and educators alike to ask why. Answers may be steeped in the cultural, economic, and geographical circumstances surrounding students. Answers may be couched in classroom content and instruction. Answers may even be entangled with the nature and approach taken to the standardized tests themselves (Spoiler Alert: They almost certainly are).

It may seem simply intuitive, for instance, to better tailor math instruction to demographics that demonstrate difficulty, or to enhance the equality of resource distribution so that those impoverished schools which produce the worst testing outcomes might be able to improve upon their performance. But these seemingly obvious steps must be predicated upon the aforementioned condition that we aren't hellbent on punishing those we believe have failed us.

This requires a shift in our very reasons for testing. In Atlanta, testing was done for the purpose of promoting higher scores, by whatever means necessary. The scandal of widespread cheating that resulted was a natural byproduct. Teachers, lacking the ability to genuinely improve the testing capacity of their students under the given circumstances, knew that anything less meant negative personal or professional consequences. But poor student performance is to be improved upon, not punished.

This means that teachers must have their autonomy returned to them. Among the greatest contradictions in our current system is the fact that those who actually spend their time in the classroom have such little input into educational policy. If we want to get something of value out of standardizing testing, we must make it possible for teachers to pursue personalized interventions based on the outcomes of individual students.

Standardized testing presumes standardized learning, which is not a real thing. Everybody learns differently but the bureaucratic passions of federal government seem naturally drawn to a fantasy in which one single kind of test can tell us everything we need to know about millions of different learners.

By letting our teachers teach, we're giving our students a much better opportunity to learn.

But where will our overburdened teachers find the time to attempt individual learning interventions?

How About Fewer Tests?

Talk about a humongous waste of precious time.

As we established in the second installment of this series, there is no evidence that the far greater number of tests students must now take (14 federally-mandated exams today as compared to six in the mid-1990s) is yielding any positive performance outcomes. In fact, putting aside the irony of referring to other standardized tests to explain why state standardized tests have been such a failure, the years since the inception of No Child Left Behind have seen student scores decline on SATs, ACTs and PISAs as well as on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

It boggles the mind to think of everything that might have been taught or learned during the time that students have frittered away drilling for standardized tests. What portion of each critical, formative, never-to-be-relived school-year has been wasted instructing toward passage of these exams? How much more could every teacher have done to help his or her students learn, improve, and excel absent the pressures, procedures, and pedantic demands that lord over every classroom.

We need to dial back the number of tests we administer, the rigor with which we train for them, and the sheer dependency we've developed on their less-than-illustrative findings. This dependency prevents us from using classroom time to help students improve in areas of individual struggle, to further cultivate individual strengths, and to exercise the creativity that leads to personal engagement.

Worse yet, it prevents us from seeing the forest for the trees. If there are cultural, economic, and geographic reasons for the challenges unique to certain student populations, our commitment to this one narrowly framed diagnostic prevents us from ever considering them. Even with 11 educators now facing varying convictions, blame firmly assigned, and new ethics standards in place, many of the root challenges that Atlanta's students face continue unabated.

If anything, the health hazards, poverty, and crime that many of Atlanta's students face in their own neighborhoods have only been further shunted from the spotlight. The unilateral focus on the cheating scandal and its most obvious perpetrators promotes the illusion that issues truly impacting students have somehow been addressed by a few convictions.

This is an extension of the illusions created by the invasion of standardized testing into every aspect of education. The time has come to fight back its advances. There is a line past which the testing designed to measure progress becomes its greatest impediment. We have clearly crossed that line. We need to rediscover a balance.

Test less. Educate more.

Kick the Testing Corps Out of D.C.

As we mentioned in our last installment, the testing industry is a $2 billion dollar behemoth that spends a collective $20 million a year on lobbying efforts aimed at furthering its infiltration into American education. So profound is this industry's influence that thought leaders handpicked from among these corporations are active participants in the design of our federal education policy.

This is about as kosher as letting Bill Belichik referee his own football games.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

Strong leadership and recognition that our current approach isn't working should be enough to dismiss the testing industry from the policymaking process. There is also every rational, data-driven justification to do so. We've given the testing industry a seat at the educational policy table and it has proven too self-interested to benefit the public. Student outcomes have suffered and scandals like the one in Atlanta highlight the danger of placing our trust in the wrong hands.

It's time to give somebody else a chance. And now that we have a big open seat at the table, perhaps we could fill it with educational professionals, with those who have spent enough time in the classroom to understand that real educational challenges need real educational reform.

Testing has proven a poor substitute for the real thing.

Promote Greater Competition in the Testing Industry

Or at least, the current approach to testing has proven a poor substitute. The inherent conflict between their policy-design role and their profit motives makes it impossible for the testing industry to create a product that places the student first. Tests are designed to justify and benefit their own existence.

This suggests that the companies in whom we've vested the responsibility of evaluating our students are ill-suited to do so in an adequate or meaningful way. But that's the great thing about capitalism. If there's somebody out there who can do it better, then they ultimately will.

Perhaps it isn't that far-fetched to suggest that any number of independent, third-party agencies might be just as suited, if not more so, to provide meaningful student evaluations with greater variety, nuance, and reliability than those agencies which have succeeded in mandating their own testing instruments. The internet, in particular, presents us with a world of opportunities for the creation of meaningful and independently attainable student assessment.

And there is good reason for the federal government to take such private endeavors seriously. With proper oversight and accreditation, a competitive testing industry could help to promote higher standards of evaluative reliability. Moreover, this seems a most advisable cure to the one-size-fits-all testing sickness. By opening the otherwise oligarchic testing industry up to the ingenuity of independent student assessment agencies, we could yet find new and progressive ways of identifying and cultivating individual student strengths.

Where state standardized tests boil student potential down to performance in math, reading, and, in some cases, science, a free market testing industry could lead to the development of meaningful mainstream assessments in humanities, liberal arts, mechanical skills, or one's potential for a career in aeronautics. The sky's the limit, no pun intended.

By allowing a select few, deep-pocketed testing corporations to determine what makes one student special and another unlikely to succeed, we have reduced the potential of our student population to just a few neatly classifiable areas of academic interest. This is a crime far more unforgivable than fudging a few thousand standardized test answers.

It is thus that we call on leaders at the district, state, and federal level to take steps to encourage, incentivize, and where appropriate, make available the proper accreditation to support innovations in student evaluation that might free us from the shackles of our current testing regime.

In addition to opening up a far wider world for the realization of student potential, this action could go a long way toward removing the many conflicts of interest that make current testing priorities so dubious.

Returning the Classroom To Its Rightful Owners

At the crux of each of the recommendations above is a single, unifying thread. Each of these actions would represent one further step toward returning the classroom to teachers and students. So many parties seem to have a seat at the table when it comes to our educational policy. But lost amid the dollars and cents are those for whom the outcomes matter most. The recommendations here would restore teachers, students, and learning back to the center of education where they belong.

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