Over the years, and especially since the passage of No Child Left Behind, student test scores have been used to reward and punish schools and teachers. Those schools and teachers whose students show progress and meet goals are left alone to continue their good work. In some cases, the schools are also in line for cash incentives and rewards.
Test scores are a big deal.
When Atlanta schools began to show marked improvement in their scores, the praise and rewards came thick and fast; the schools received nearly $1 million in federal money for what they accomplished, and 44 schools were recognized as “Title I Distinguished Schools” because they made “Adequate Yearly Progress” (the NCLB benchmark) three years in a row.
As a result, Beverly Hall, the head of Atlanta Public Schools, was named Superintendent of the Year in 2009 by the American Association of School Administrators.
But something did not seem right. Some of the progress seemed too dramatic. And rumors of cheating surfaced.
When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution began looking into the issue, what it found led to a 10-month state investigation that uncovered cheating in 44 schools. When the investigation was finished, 178 educators, including 38 principals, were found to have changed answers on tests as well as given students unauthorized help on the exams.
Hall, charged with ignoring the culture of cheating, cover-ups and obstruction while pressing for improvements by whatever means necessary, has since resigned. Now the American Association of School Administrators is considering taking back the award.
Discussions are under way to determine if the 44 schools will have to return the money they received based on falsified test scores.
That brings up a bigger question: Why would educators, who have dedicated their lives to teaching, cheat?
The answer that keeps returning is that teachers and principals felt their careers were at risk if they did not raise test scores — in one case, a principal reportedly told teachers that if the scores did not improve, “Wal-Mart is hiring.”
Of course, that is no excuse, but behind the cheating is a reason.
Too much emphasis has been put on test scores when we know, or at least we should know, that test scores are not the only measure of teaching and learning. But rather than do the hard work it takes to evaluate each student’s progress and each teacher’s accomplishments, it is easier — and in the end cheaper — to lump all students together, test them and give the teacher credit for their collective progress or blame for their collective failure.
Just as making a test the measure for so much is a simple and easy way to draw conclusions, making a test the measure also makes it easier for those who want to manipulate the results.
Evaluating students, teachers and administrators is a complicated task. It can’t be reduced to a battery of tests alone. When too much emphasis is put on any single sort of measure, those threatened by it will try to find a way to circumvent the system. That happened in Atlanta. Our school systems in Alabama must take care that it does not happen here.