The numbers were good — too good. They kept rising, beggaring belief. The people who should have questioned them, should have inquired as to how those producing the numbers kept moving from strength to strength, instead got caught up in celebrating them, even taking credit for them.
The numbers were good — too good to be true.
Enron? Major League Baseball?
Atlanta Public Schools?
Let’s stipulate that the state’s review of dodgy CRCT results, prompted by an earlier AJC investigative series, does not on its own explain exactly what happened in Atlanta’s schools during last year’s standardized tests. The state’s analysis of erasure marks on student test sheets does not reveal who did, or knew, or ignored what. For that reason, Gov. Sonny Perdue and his staff have been wisely patient in waiting for the rest of the facts to come to light.
But let’s also acknowledge that cheating occurred. Barring some anti-APS conspiracy by the state, no innocent explanation suffices for a system whose schools were vastly overrepresented among the suspicious.
Surely, there are many innocent teachers and administrators — just as the majority of major leaguers didn’t take steroids, and only a handful of executives cooked the books.
Still, the alternate explanations from Superintendent Beverly Hall don’t cut it. The idea that Atlanta students are just really diligent about double-checking their test answers (and just happen to get dozens of questions right the second time around) doesn’t pass the laugh test any more than Barry Bonds insisting he was just a vitamin-popping gym rat.
When the next phase of investigation ends and — let’s hope — we learn more about how the cheating took place, some people will rationalize it as the inevitable result of an emphasis on testing.
That rationalization isn’t laughable, it’s abominable.
Start with the fact that some of the people who will take this broad-brush swipe at educators’ integrity are the same ones now bemoaning an unfair rush to judgment following the state’s CRCT inquiry.
Plenty of teachers and administrators in plenty of school districts faced the pressure to perform without cheating. Of the state’s 188 districts, 175 managed to avoid having a single school on the “severe concern” list that ensnared three-fifths of APS elementary and middle schools. Statewide, 80 percent of the schools under review were deemed in the clear.
So, clearly, cheating is not a reflexive reaction to pressure. We ought to be gravely concerned about any leader who would suggest that it is.
That’s particularly true for anyone who works with children and teenagers. If schools are not equipping students to face this kind of pressure, they will be even worse off as adults than we thought.
We can’t simply trust people to do the right thing, but we can verify it. For too long, we didn’t verify education results.
Now that we’ve begun to verify, the answer isn’t to de-emphasize tests. Baseball didn’t react to steroid use by playing down home runs, and Wall Street still measures earnings.
There’s one last commonality among APS, steroids in baseball and financial fraud.
Baseball players didn’t use steroids to be all-stars; they cheated to achieve the unprecedented: 66, 70, 73 home runs in a season. Enron didn’t cook the books to be merely profitable, but to reach soaring earnings and share prices.
And the scores of APS students didn’t just rise; they skyrocketed. Yet Atlantans didn’t demand that APS double its passing rates within a decade, only that it record steady, sustainable improvement.
Now, like fans and investors, we have to wonder whether we got even that.