Earlier this week 11 former teachers and administrators in the Atlanta school system were convicted of racketeering for widespread efforts to cheat on the standardized tests administered by the state of Georgia to determine school effectiveness and reward and punish teachers.

This is the problem with too much reliance on testing to determine school effectiveness. According to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

The alleged cheating was discovered when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported inexplicable spikes in test scores. Eventually, a criminal investigation was opened that led to a 29-count indictment two years ago. Two of those counts have been dropped, leaving 27 for the jury to consider.

Before the cheating was exposed, the narrative of the Atlanta school system was it was a vastly improving district that took a no-nonsense approach to teachers and administrators who did not meet its high academic standards. Its superintendent, Beverly Hall, won national awards. City leaders used the rising test scores to make the case to businesses that Atlanta was the place to be.

Cheating, of course, is wrong. Georgia had an evaluation system and teachers and administers abused it in order to get rewards and avoid punishment. And we don’t, after all, necessarily think that it’s time to change financial policy because accountants cook the books on corporate earnings or think that it’s time to change criminal justice because someone commits a murder.

But this problem occurs in education, fundamentally, because it’s pretty easy to cheat when we determine school effectiveness using standardized tests.


According to a piece by Alia Wong and Terrance F. Rossapr in the Atlantic:

The growing prevalence in recent years of dishonest practices such as these suggests that something is amiss within America’s schools. This new era of School Accountability 2.0 is contingent on the data gleaned from incessant standardized testing like the new Common Core exams—a recipe that doesn’t bode well for classroom ethics. School districts areincreasingly tying teacher pay to performance, and there’s no consensus on the best way to measure student proficiency, so the high test scores are starting to look a lot like money.

If we really want evaluate schools well, and know who’s really learning and who isn’t, if we want to find out which teachers are good and which ones are bad, that’s actually pretty difficult. It requires evaluating student work and observing classroom dynamics. It involves some evaluation of standardized tests, over many years, for sure, but it should probably include a lot of different tests, and evaluation of other factors as well.

That’s difficult. And it’s expensive. But it would be very, very hard to cheat. It would also probably be a much better way to improve our schools and help educate our students in the long run.

There are always small amounts of people in any group who are dishonest. This is true whether the group is clergymen, or accountants, or teachers. The lesson to draw with regard to the Atlanta school scandal is not what to do about bad teachers; the lesson is how to avoid a system in which cheating is rewarded.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer