Hard Lessons From Atlanta

Under the current state and federal educational policies, test scores are used to justify punishing schools and their students for being chronic underperformers BEFORE necessary steps have been taken to correct the profoundly unequal learning conditions deliberately created for the children in those schools.

Fawn Johnson at National Journal.com sent us regular commentators on their Education Insiders blog the following questions:  The Atlanta case is obviously unusual, but how far afield is it, really? Are there other examples of cheating that cross legal boundaries? How can testing be done appropriately? Is it enough to publicize the results of tests, or must schools put some “skin in the game” by seeking incentives for good results? We know no test is perfect, but at what point do tests overtake the actual teaching? How can cheating be avoided?

Fawn,

When I saw your questions for this week’s column, I was in Memphis. Of course, on April 4th, I could not help but remember the death here of Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. in 1968. I am struck by the poignant juxtaposition of his work and sacrifice against what is happening with Black students and educators in his hometown.

Dr. King wrote that “The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals….We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education” (The Purpose of Education, 1947).

Therefore, my overall response to the Atlanta situation has not changed very much since you last asked us these questions (October 2014 – “EdReform’s March to the Sea”).  However, the convictions have produced an outpouring of thoughtful opinions from a number of other commentators.

Some that deserve consideration include:

  • This re-published July 2014 piece by Rachel Aviv in the New Yorker that explores the Atlanta experience in very human depth.
  • Erika Christakis reminds us that even if we eliminated the cheating in standardized testing, we’d still be left with the biggest scandal of all: “the dangerous misconception that testing is a proxy for teaching.”

It has been well-established that there is widespread cheating related to these testing programs. John Merrow exposed the scope of the cheating in D.C. public schools under Michele Rhee. In that case, evidence suggests a cover-up of the test scores that were falsely raised while over 600 teachers were fired because their scores were too low. Reports of large scale cheating by schools and districts on these test numbers have been confirmed for over two decades, and in over 35 states.  All of which begs several other questions, not the least of which is: Why have the Black former educators in Atlanta been singled out for such severe penalties and the application of racketeering laws?

Under the current state and federal educational policies, test scores are used to justify punishing schools and their students for being chronic underperformers BEFORE necessary steps have been taken to correct the profoundly unequal learning conditions deliberately created for the children in those schools.

You ask: Can testing be done appropriately? My answer:

Yes, “…if we put testing back into its proper place. Timely, appropriate, comprehensive evaluation of student learning is an essential responsibility of a fully trained, accomplished classroom teacher or a team of such teachers. The ability to use standardized test results as one part of a much larger picture of student performance, measured primarily at the classroom level over time and through a variety of formats is one of the hallmarks of an effective teacher. That aspect of our work has been distorted, and in [many] places, completely removed from teachers’ jurisdiction. I’m arguing for not just a restoration, but an elevation of teacher effectiveness and professionalism in the area of assessment. To accomplish this, we have to place a moratorium on the current testing frenzy in order to assess better and more deeply” [TeachMoore, 2010].

—This blog is cross-posted at NationalJournal.com/Education Insiders–