Saturday, March 30, 2013

Lessons from the Atlanta testing scandal

Friday’s indictment of 35 Atlanta educators for a massive testing scandal should give pause to all people who care about the future of education and our children.

The indictment by a Fulton County grand jury charged the former superintendent Beverly Hall with racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and making false statements. She could face up to 45 years in prison.

The underlying story behind this scandal is that when school “success” is reduced to data-driven standardized test scores, the consequences are devastating. Cheating is only the tip of the iceberg.  An even more troublesome consequence is that the very definition of education is hijacked. Learning is narrowed, dulled, and reduced to measurable data bits. Teaching as a craft and profession is redefined as script-following and data collecting.

During Superintendent Hall’s decade of being superintendent in Atlanta test scores rose and she became the darling of Arne Duncan who hosted her at the White House. Duncan’s policies have coerced state legislatures to increase standardized testing and to tie educator evaluation to test scores.

According to Friday’s indictment, “Principals and teachers were frequently told by Beverly Hall and her subordinates that excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated.”

One teacher, who turned a state’s witness, told officials that teachers were under constant pressure from principals who feared they would be fired if they did not meet the testing targets.

The New York Times reported that Hall “held yearly rallies at the Georgia Dome, rewarding principals and teachers from schools with high test scores by seating them up front, close to her, while low scorers were shunted aside to the bleachers.”

The New York Times also noted “Cheating has grown at school districts around the country as standardized testing has become a primary means of evaluating teachers, principals, and schools.”

Time to Ask Questions
While some policy makers and test-obsessed school “reformers” may dismiss such cheating scandals as exceptions, these scandals should serve as a wake up call to anyone concerned about the future of our schools. 

We need to ask some basic questions.

  • Should our children be subjected to endless test prep and hours of narrow skill-driven curriculum? Or instead should they get a well rounded education like what President Obama’s daughters receive at the Sidwell Friends School or what Arne Duncan received as a child at the Chicago Lab School?
  • Should students of color and those from economically disenfranchised families be subjected to narrow, test-driven schooling while children in the most affluent communities receive well-resourced, well-rounded education with much less testing?
  • Why should transnational textbook/testing companies and corporate-backed philanthropic organizations determine the curriculum for our schools?

Time to Act
Increasingly parents, teachers, principals, and even school superintendents are speaking out on the over use and negative impact of mass standardized testing.

The courageous teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School not only started a boycott of the MAP tests, but also allied parents and community groups to their cause.

Principals in New York spoke out against the use of test scores to evaluate staff and schools.

Parent organizations across the nation have stepped up, recognizing that using tests to declare public schools as “failing” is part of a larger plan to close public schools and replace them with privately-run charter schools.

Let’s use scandals like that in Atlanta to continue to push to change the national narrative on school accountability. Let’s unite with progressive school board members to hold community reviews on impact of testing in our schools and to examine reasonable alternatives.

Let’s do what’s right for our students.
Some good resources on standardized testing: