The trial for twelve teachers and school administrators in Atlanta accused of partaking in a far-ranging cheating effort has begun this week, with Georgia prosecutors describing an alleged culture of academic corruption that systematically raised test scores while punishing individuals who tried to blow the whistle.
According to prosecutors, gains were not made thanks to innovative teaching methods or improved faculty quality, but rather due to systematic fraud that even included group dinners where staff would share fish and grits while fixing students’ incorrect answers. If the jury buys the prosecutors’ case, the accused educators could face years in prison.
While the trial’s verdict is likely months away, activists are already using the trial to argue for a total revision in how the country handles testing. Most of the country is using tests more and more, whether as a component of Common Core adoption or to further state laws evaluating teachers based on test scores.
The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, more commonly known as FairTest, says the trial shows schools need to put the brakes on testing.
Bob Schaeffer, FairTest’s Public Education Director, said Atlanta perfectly showcases the corrupting influence of high-stakes testing for the entire nation.
“This perfectly illustrates one of the problems with the nation’s fixation on standardized testing,” Schaeffer told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “You end up distorting what goes on in the classroom.”
Nor is Atlanta’s situation an outlier, said Schaeffer.
“It may be the largest and most complicated, but it’s also just one case out of many,” he said. Just days ago, he pointed out, two principals have been charged in a widening cheating probe in Philadelphia, while nearly a dozen educators have already been punished for masterminding cheating efforts in El Paso, Texas. Altogether, FairTest says that significant cheating has been identified in 39 states as well as the District of Columbia.
FairTest maintains that standardized testing naturally encourages a wide array of dishonest behaviors, and drove its point home by releasing on Monday a list of over 60 methods of cheating the organization has identified during its years of work.
The list covers every manner of duplicity, with highlights including teachers leapfrogging certain students past a grade where they would be tested, reclassifying English speakers as English learners, and simply destroying the tests of low-performing students.
Other misdeeds are more mundane, such as changing students’ answers following the tests (the centerpiece of the Atlanta scandal), leaving various formulas and study aids visible during tests, and giving students more time to complete a test than is normally allowed.
FairTest argues that high-stakes standardized tests should be replaced with alternatives, such as evaluating students based on a portfolio of their work over the course of a year. Faking an entire portfolio is a much taller task for teachers than changing bubbles on tests, said Schaeffer, and they can still be monitored just as exams may be proctored.
“We like a ‘trust but verify’ system,” said Schaeffer. “You could have teams of educators from another district view portfolios to see if grading is accurate. You could also rely on teams from state departments of education, or even private accreditation teams.”
Testing supporters may counter that cheating could be checked by better test proctoring and other security measures, but FairTest counters that there are many other reasons to oppose the testing regimes. Tests narrow curricula, Schaeffer said, and promote a “dumbed down” culture that favors grinding memorization over creativity and exploration.
Schaeffer pointed out that while Bill Gates has promoted standardized tests as one component of widespread education reform, Lakeside School, the elite Seattle school both Gates and his children attended, has generally de-emphasized standardized tests, as has Sidwell Friends, the D.C. private school attended by President Obama’s daughters. The approach of those schools, Schaeffer said, helps to demonstrate how “focusing on real academic work [is a lot better than] filling in bubbles for a couple hours.”
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