The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal: Implications for Florida?

The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal grabbed national attention as the largest in U.S. history. The Atlanta Journal Constitution revealed the results of a 10-month investigation by state officials that found that teachers and school administrators at 44 of Atlanta’s 58 schools had altered standardized test scores.

Those involved had until 5 p.m. July 20 to quit or resign. What prompted the cheating? Could it happen in Palm Beach County?

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 applies enormous accountability measures to teachers, schools and school districts regarding student performance on standardized, high-stakes tests. The NCLB and the pressure it puts on school officials to achieve positive results and “look good,” along with the incompetency, unprofessionalism and unethical behavior of all involved – school board members, superintendents, principals and teachers — are the root causes of this humiliating situation. Other scandals have emerged in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Los Angeles, Miami and Orlando.

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “the district set unrealistic test score goals or targets, a culture of pressure and retaliation spread through the district, and [former Superintendent Beverly] Hall emphasized test results and public praise at the expense of ethics.” One teacher told investigators that the district was run like a mob.”

The sordid details in Atlanta and other school districts across the country confirm, in my mind, that school reform is mission impossible. We will sooner colonize Neptune than reform a broken national system.

The nature of standardized testing is part of the problem. Standardized tests are not the way to properly and professionally evaluate schools and staff.
By definition, standardized tests are used by schools and school districts to compare a student’s performance to other students of the same age and grade and to compare schools and school districts. They are also used to provide feedback to parents in the form of percentile rankings. If your child scored at the 70th percentile, that means she scored better than 70 percent of the students who took the same test. Some school districts use these scores to determine promotion and to adjust curriculum and instruction protocols.

Standardized testing is convenient but not by any means comprehensive. Hebert J. Walberg, in his book  “Evaluating Educational Performance,” states, “But we must avoid the error of equating what is most often measured or most conveniently measurable with what is most important in the environment and outcome domains.”

These high-stakes tests are not comprehensive, they offer a limited view of a learner’s capabilities, and they fall short of promoting higher-level thinking skills.

The state of Florida has tried to mitigate the pressure of using the results of one standardized test to evaluate teachers and school districts by examining standardized test results over a three-year period. This still does not solve the issue of realistic teacher or school evaluation. What does? Stay tuned.

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