My news-side colleagues at the AJC did it again. By taking their examination of suspicious test scores nationwide, with the “Cheating Our Children” series that began last Sunday, they felled another wall standing between the public and the truth about what’s going on in our public schools.
The question now is what the public, and those who make public policy, will do with this information. There are lessons both from and for Atlanta.
From the experience of Atlanta Public Schools, we know that, as explosive as the information about suspect wrong-to-right erasure marks on standardized tests at dozens of schools was, little would have come of it had there been no political will to look deeper — and keep looking.
In a couple of meetings during the process sparked by AJC reports, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue demonstrated a palpable anger about the way adults had cheated schoolchildren. That fire in his belly proved crucial when supporters of APS tried to pooh-pooh the wrongdoing with a toothless self-investigation: It drove him to commit the necessary resources to a real investigation.
That investigation ultimately found about 180 teachers and administrators were involved in cheating at more than half of Atlanta’s elementary and middle schools in 2009. The AJC could point to the likelihood of a problem, but it took a governor with gumption to get to the bottom of it.
From the APS scandal, we also know how hard it is to clean house even after evidence is compiled. Disagreements about school board leaders’ handling of the cheating scandal created a rift among board members that (wrongly, in my view) nearly cost APS its accreditation. Cleanup of the mess didn’t begin until after the superintendent during the years in question, Beverly Hall, retired on her own terms.
And even though Hall’s successor, Erroll Davis, has fought doggedly to rid the district of the adults responsible for the cheating, he has met resistance even from some of those educators who admitted to wrongdoing. This, in a city and state without the kind of true teachers unions and labor laws that, in other states, have made school policy reforms and dismissals of even bad teachers practically impossible.
But there also are messages for Atlanta to take away from this broader look at possible cheating in U.S. public schools.
First, it confirms that what happened here was not the work of some uniquely immoral actors. As much as I think Beverly Hall and her lieutenants should be held accountable for the gravely bad actions that happened on their watch, let’s not believe they were the only administrators capable of such negligence and/or scheming.
Ridding itself of those who perpetrated or turned a blind eye to cheating will in no way inoculate APS against future misdeeds. Davis has begun implementing safeguards against future cheating. But once he leaves — he’s always maintained his intention not to make this a long stop on his way to retirement — everyone from teachers and principals to parents and board members must be vigilant to ensure the habits of the previous regime are truly dead.
At the same time, the possibility that 196 other school districts engaged in similar cheating does not grant anyone at APS any form of “everybody was doing it” reprieve. Those 196 districts represent a maddening number of districts in which adults may have been rewarded for hiding their students’ lack of learning. Each one, if cheating is proven, represents a tragic hindering of those children’s futures — in the extra help they may have gotten if it was clear they were not passing muster, and in the impression they now have that adults think cheating is OK.
But keep in mind that, as significant a figure as 196 is, the AJC’s review of test scores found 2,929 of the nation’s largest districts did not exhibit these suspicious patterns. That is, 94 percent of these large districts didn’t raise red flags.
That’s not to say there definitely was no cheating in those 2,929 districts; the AJC’s analysis wouldn’t have caught, for instance, a teacher who simply read all the answers aloud to students. But it suggests the vast majority of U.S. schools administered tests and accepted the results, good or bad, without deception. Any conclusion that standardized tests are the enemy must ignore the other 94 percent.
Digging for truth must continue. The results prove that, as educators are fond of saying, learning is a lifelong process.
– By Kyle Wingfield