hometown shame: massive test cheating in Atlanta

I’ve been moving and without regular access to the internet, so this is a week behind, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out my hometown, Atlanta, for the recently uncovered standardized test cheating scandal. The New York Times:

At the center of the cheating scandal is former Superintendent Beverly L. Hall, who was named the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year and has been considered one of the nation’s best at running large, urban districts.

Dr. Hall, who announced in November that she would be leaving the job at the end of June, left Tuesday for a Hawaiian vacation.

Dr. Hall is a veteran administrator of the New York and Newark public schools. She took over the Atlanta district in 1999 and enjoyed broad support. Under her administration, Atlanta schools had shown marked improvement in several areas.

Still, the investigation shows that cheating on the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Test began as early as 2001, and that “clear and significant” warnings were raised as early as December 2005. Dr. Hall’s administration punished whistle-blowers, hid or manipulated information and illegally altered documents related to the tests, the investigation found. The superintendent and her administration “emphasized test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics,” the investigators wrote.

Clearly, if the investigators are correct, Dr. Hall has done wrong here. But the incentives that made it very attractive for her to cheat are obvious: schools and school districts that don’t improve are punished at both the state and federal levels, and, at the same time, administrators like Hall who make the numbers look good are hailed as heroes.

Hall isn’t the first to be seduced by the allure of being education’s fix-it person; Washington, D.C.’s Michelle Rhee may also have been involved in a cheating scandal, and even if she wasn’t, she was certainly willing to take credit for higher scores that had nothing to do with her methods. And a few years earlier President Bush, when running for office and stumping for No Child Left Behind, took credit for “dramatically improved” Texas schools while conveniently leaving out the fact that many schools “improved” only on paper, by hiding their dropout rates.

And even in the vast majority of schools, one hopes, where no actual cheating or manipulation of demographic numbers is occurring, when the emphasis is on bringing the numbers up and the consequences for failure include teachers and administrators losing their jobs, we can hardly be surprised that real education suddenly becomes less of a priority than test cramming.

(Tip o’ the hat to my old hometown paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which did a lot of the initial digging that led to the investigation.)

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2 Responses to hometown shame: massive test cheating in Atlanta

  1. There is a strong case against testing children in schools, and I wish it got more attention. Even without cheating problems in the institutions, the children themselves do not benefit from test-taking. Test-taking is one of many ways that corporations are trying to make money in education. I resent educational privatization. It is a fraud in and of itself.

    • thehandsomecamel says:

      Yeah, the privatization angle is maybe the most sinister part. No Child Left Behind seems to be written in a way to optimize privatization, partly by providing mechanisms for shutting down underperforming schools and turning them over to private companies, and partly by putting already-weak schools on the fast track to doom through so-called “school choice,” a.k.a. the most-advantaged families getting their kids the hell out of the crappy schools….

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