The Scandal Behind The Testing Scandal – Teachers Flunked the Ethics and Integrity Test

July 25, 2011

The Atlanta school test scandal is hot news, but some parts are hotter than others! You can read all about it in the news, and it is constantly unfolding, but here is the heart of the story and why you should care (even if you don’t live in Atlanta).

On July 5, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal released an outline of findings from the state’s investigation into the 2009 administration of the Atlanta Public Schools [APS] CRCT [Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests].

The findings included the following:

  • “Thousands of children were harmed by the 2009 CRCT cheating by being denied remedial education because of their inflated CRCT scores.
  • We found cheating in 44 of the 56 schools we examined (78.6%). There were 38 principals of those 56 schools (67.9%) found to be responsible for, or directly involved in, cheating.
  • “We determined that 178 teachers and principals in the Atlanta Public Schools System cheated. Of the 178, 82 confessed to this misconduct. Six principals refused to answer our questions, and pled the Fifth Amendment, which, under civil law is an implied admission of wrongdoing. These principals, and 32 more, either were involved with, or should have known that, there was test cheating in their schools.
  • “We empathize with those educators who felt they were pressured to cheat and commend those who were willing to tell us the truth regarding their misconduct. However, this report is not meant to excuse their ethical failings, or exonerate them from their wrongdoings.
  • “Cheating occurred as early as 2001.
  • “There were warnings of cheating on CRCT as early as December 2005/January 2006. The warnings were significant and clear and were ignored.
  • “There was a major failure of leadership throughout APS with regard to the ethical administration of the 2009 CRCT.
  • “A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation existed in APS, which created a conspiracy of silence and deniability with respect to standardized test misconduct.
  • “In addition to the 2009 CRCT cheating, we found other improper conduct: several open record act violations; instances of false statements; and instances of document destruction.

The Governor wrote:  “Nothing is more important to the future of our state than ensuring that today’s students receive a first-class education and integrity in testing is a necessary piece of the equation…When test results are falsified and students who have not mastered the necessary material are promoted, our students are harmed, parents lose sight of their child’s true progress, and taxpayers are cheated.”

I agree with the Governor. How can we allow districts, administrators and staff to receive praise (and sometimes bonuses) by misleading the children, parents and community they served?

This testing scandal isn’t about students who cheated the system. This scandal is about 178 teachers who cheated the students. Now both teachers and students are in serious trouble. The new superintendent said that “none of those educators will work in an Atlanta classroom again” and the district will “require ethics training for all employees”, probably online training.

Why did the teachers and administrators do this? The CRCT is designed to measure how well students acquire the skills and knowledge described in the Georgia Performance Standards (GPS), the high stakes annual testing done to show yearly progress. These tests are used to see if schools and districts meet No Child Left Behind requirements, because improved schools can receive federal money for their improvements. Schools receive praise, and bonus often follow.  Students in need of help were allowed to advance even though they were struggling.  The teacher cheating meant that students who needed help didn’t get it because of their (false) scores.

Schools with poor test scores come under scrutiny as low performing schools, and schools that get good scores get awards and acknowledgement. Schools should be working to educate their students, and passing the test would reflect academic progress.  But some teachers are forced to teach to the test at all cost. Some schools want certain students to stay home so those students don’t bring down the averages. That’s the story Erin Gruwell of Freedom Writers told about her first-year teaching experience, when my students and I heard hear speak at the Chick-Fil-A Leadercast in May.

USA Today says that’s not the last we’ll hear about teacher cheating. “USA TODAY last March examined standardized test scores at District of Columbia schools and found 103 public schools with high erasure rates on penciled-in answer sheets. An investigation is underway. “USA TODAY also found evidence of test tampering in six states besides Georgia and Maryland, including California, Florida and Ohio.”

This scandal came to light when the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution “reported that some scores were statistically improbable.” After the story was published, “the state investigation was launched last August by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue who was upset over what he called a “woefully inadequate” probe by the district.” More cheating!

The real scandal is that the teachers cheated their students forever. Life for the students  changed forever, and it won’t be the life that could have been if the system was properly informed of the student’s’ current education level. Imagine being a student (or parent of a student) who is being moved ahead in the system because test scores incorrectly show the student is making adequate educational progress. But the student hasn’t got it and isn’t making adequate progress. The student is behind and needs help. Moving this student far ahead of his or her actual skills and abilities is a formula for student failure – big time!

This practice has been occurring in Atlanta since 2001, so many of the students affected are no longer in the system, and most of those that didn’t drop out can’t be doing well. The school system didn’t know they needed help. This teacher cheating robbed us of their greatness and of the student potential they thwarted. For the students who were forced to drop out of the system, the teachers robbed them of bright futures, and in some case inflicted on society the cost of dropping out.

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education ” if the students who dropped out of the class of 2007 [in the US] had graduated, the nation’s economy would have benefited from an additional $329 billion in income over their lifetimes”. Our economy could sure use that help. On the darker side, the CBS Evening News reports: “Dropouts cost taxpayers more than $8 billion annually in public assistance programs like food stamps. High school dropouts earn about $10 thousand less a year than workers with diplomas. That’s $300 billion in lost earnings every year. They’re more likely to be unemployed: 15 percent are out of work versus a national average of 9.4 percent. They also are more likely to be incarcerated. Almost 60 percent of federal inmates are high school dropouts. “

Ethics scandals aren’t new. Students sometimes laugh at the Teapot Dome Scandal and the other scandals they study throughout history.  They weren’t around during the Watergate Scandal.  We were all supposed to learn from these scandals.  Didn’t happen here!  Requiring online ethics training doesn’t make sense because these teachers knew they were cheating. Changing wrong answers to right answers for a student is cheating. My guess that these teachers would be very upset about student cheating in their classes, or if someone robbed them of their income-earning potential or of their ability to achieve their dreams..

If they don’t get it, have them watch Freedom Writers or read Erin Gruwell’s interview. Here are three important questions and Erin’s answers that all teachers should study.

“What is the best lesson you have learned and from whom?

“The best lesson I ever learned was from Miep Gies, the humble and courageous woman who hid Anne Frank for two years, who told my students, “I simply did what I had to do, because it was the right thing to do.” It is my hope that in the face of adversity that I can simply ‘do what I had to do, because it was the right thing to do.’

“What is the best advice you can give a teacher?

“My best advice was given to me from a Holocaust survivor who became my teacher. After surviving Auschwitz and living to tell her story, Renee Firestone challenged my students that: “Evil prevails when good people do nothing.” Therefore, as good people, we are compelled to do something.

“What do you think should change in the educational system?

I believe that teachers should teach to a kid and not to a test.”

The Washington Post carried an article by US Secretary of Education about this scandal. He wrote, “cheating reflects a willingness to lie at children’s expense to avoid accountability” He also noted that “several states, including my home state of Illinois, simply lowered their standards to claim “better” test scores as success—essentially lying to children and parents.”

Teaching is a profession, and we expect high ethical standards in their professional behavior. Instead of caring about their students, the teachers and administrators involved in this scandal had other fish to fry and other agendas, including self-preservation and promotion.

Cheating never makes sense.   Let’s not try to make sense of it here.  Just say no (cheating)!  

Posted by marks on Monday July 25, 2011 at 12:45PM

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