The testing system is guilty

April 23, 2015

Teachers and school administrators are in the crosshairs in the Atlanta test cheating scandal--but Rebekah Ward and Elizabeth Schulte uncover the real culprits.

MORE THAN 30 teachers have been charged in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal. Their crime? Wanting a decent job and funding for their students.

On April 14, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter announced harsh sentences for eight former educators who were among 11 found guilty on April 1 of cheating on standardized tests in a highly publicized testing scandal.

The former Atlanta teachers, principals and administrators were charged with racketeering. Prosecutors argued that they conspired to cheat, providing students with answers to standardized tests, allowing lower-performing students to copy from higher-performing peers, and changing answers on tests after the students turned in their exams.

The sentences for the eight are draconian, including seven years in prison plus 13 years of probation, along with 2,000 hours of community service and a $25,000 fine. Two defendants chose to waive their right to appeal, admit their guilt and apologize in exchange for lighter sentences. An 11th defendant just had a baby, so her sentencing was postponed.

Left to right: Sharon Davis-Williams, Michael Pitts and Tamara Cotman
Left to right: Sharon Davis-Williams, Michael Pitts and Tamara Cotman

This bring the total number of educators charged as a result of the years-long scandal to more than 30.

In 2011, a state investigation reported that 178 teachers, principals and administrators at 44 different schools were caught cheating. Within a year, the newly appointed superintendent told the implicated teachers that they had one day to resign or face firing. Thirty-three of the educators who were fired also received additional criminal charges of racketeering--21 took plea deals and 11 went to trial, pleading not guilty.

During the trial and sentencing, Judge Baxter, who is white, showed his utter disdain for the defendants and their lawyers, who are all Black, repeatedly yelling at them and refusing to let them speak. With his extreme sentences--more harsh than even prosecutors had requested and longer than some defendants are given for violent crimes--he made it clear that educators are going to take the fall for this scandal.

But the real blame lies elsewhere--with the expansion of standardized testing nationwide, which penalizes schools and educators when students fail to meet testing requirements. In school districts across the country, this has created a climate where it's not difficult to imagine teachers considering cheating--since they face the threat of slashed funding, school closures and layoffs.

Testing scandals have also hit Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Camden, New Jersey; and other cities in the wake of the explosion of high-stakes testing nationwide. But the Atlanta case stands out for the justice system's determination to target and punish educators.

Nevertheless, the roots of the testing crisis run much deeper, and blame for the Atlanta scandal lies much higher up--on a federal education policy that links funding to how well schools perform on high-stakes tests.

IN 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act became law and fundamentally altered education in Georgia and around the country. This law uses high-stakes testing to create supposed "accountability" for student progress in test scores, enforced by allotments of federal funding. Georgia was doing so poorly in this task using the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test that it received a waiver to use its own standard for evaluating schools, the College and Career Ready Performance Index.

But even by this index, Georgia schools were failing.

At the same time Georgia schools faced new federal requirements based on test scores, they were confronting budget cuts at the state level--more than $8.3 billion has been cut from public school funding since 2003. During this same time period, the number of low-income students in Georgia public schools increased from 44 percent to 62 percent.

Predictable results followed--teachers increased the number of accommodations, or help with test taking, that struggling students received.

As if the high-stakes testing policies within No Child Left Behind weren't punitive enough, in 2010, the Atlanta Public Schools won a $400 million grant for so-called school "reform" under the Obama administration initiative known as "Race to the Top." Getting the funding required the state to impose merit pay on teachers, so student performance on tests not only determined the financial status of schools, but was directly linked to teachers' paychecks.

Judge Baxter's harsh April 14 sentencing sent a clear message: Blame the teachers, not the system. Although a resentencing trial has been scheduled for April 30 for some of the most extreme sentences, the precedent remains.

But many in Atlanta disagree with the outcome of the trial. As Atlanta native Amani Sams tweeted the day of the sentencing, "They give teachers 7 years in prison but won't sentence a cop for killing someone!"

Atlanta Public School teacher Clara Green wrote in an opinion piece for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

I am required to teach too much in too little time so students can "pass" the test, which results in teaching a lot of things not very well. In public schools across America, including in my own classroom, teachers are consciously implementing teaching techniques that we know do not work in the long run.

At the sentencing hearing, the judge claimed this wasn't a "victimless" crime--that students suffered because of the teacher's actions. But under the current circumstances, students and teachers will suffer no matter what. The question in every Georgia educator's mind is: "What will cause us to suffer the least?"

Only when the entire education deform movement is stopped in its tracks can the classroom become a center of learning and support for every student and every teacher--not a place where high-stakes testing decides whether a student, teacher or school is a "failure."

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