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Accountability, Assessment, and Atlanta: Lessons for Educators

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The end of April, the coming of spring, the home stretch for the school year....all are upon us. Many are currently consumed with testing programs. Parents are utilizing their privilege to opt out for their children. The implications of the increased number of children opting out are yet to be determined. But, in the midst of all these significant happenings, our thoughts turn south, to Atlanta. Police officers, and hopefully law enforcement practice, across the country have been impacted by the events in Ferguson, in Brooklyn and in South Carolina. Similarly Atlanta holds implications for teachers, for principals and for central office leaders.

The Sentencing in Atlanta
The sentencing last week was the culmination of years of proceedings. An investigation indicated that 44 schools and about 180 educators were involved in falsifying student test results. Gains in student achievement secured jobs and led to monetary bonuses. In 2013, 35 educators were indicated for racketeering, making false statements and/or theft. Many of their colleagues testified about the cheating process at trial. Last week, under racketeering legislation, eight were sentenced to prison, with community service, probation and fines as well. Of course, there will be appeals but we all need to listen up.

Judge Jerry Baxter, Fulton County Superior Court was crystal clear. He wanted them to take responsibility, admit and apologize that the ones hurt by their actions were students. He stated "I think there were hundreds, thousands of children who were harmed. That's what gets lost in all of this...They should have rose up and said no. They didn't and here we are. " That was the explanation he offered as he handed out sentences that shocked most (USA Today).

The judge meted out these sentences even in the face of character witnesses the caliber of Andrew Young, former UN Ambassador and Mayor of Atlanta. Young actually made the broader argument that learning and test results are not synonymous. The superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools had been among those indicted but she passed away before the trial concluded.

Why Cheat?
And so we come to this; were educators led off to jail in handcuffs because of student test results? No, they were led off to jail in handcuffs because of their actions regarding those results.

Have the tests levied such pressure on the system that cheating became the answer for hundreds? Are they so insignificant that changing the results seemed harmless? Did bonuses meant to incentivize teacher performance lead, instead, to selfish disregard of truth? Whether the answer is one of these, a combination, or none of them, what is revealed here is the environment within public education.  For what are we accountable and to whom?

Teacher & Principal Evaluation & Student Achievement Results
At its essence, this is the debate about tests and teacher and principal evaluation.  In the past, evaluations were designed and conducted according to practices or contracts established in each community. Seldom were student results considered. Now, because of Race to the Top (RTTT) more schools and districts across the country are migrating toward similar formats and practices. For most, it is partially based upon student achievement on locally developed and standardized tests, as well as a performance based observed set of behaviors that have been approved as professionally acceptable.

For teachers there are those established by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) called the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC) standards,  the National Board Standards, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standards for "learning, teaching and leading in the digital age."  For principals, the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) Standards for School Leaders  provide the standards upon which the observation portion of the principals' evaluation process has been based for many. These standards provide the basis upon which many assessment tools have been developed. But, in many cases, and for many reasons, these teacher and principal evaluations are falling short of being helpful because they are being used as a one-time summative report that appraises the identified behaviors of the teachers and principals being evaluated. This too is disheartening. Too much is at risk not to get this right.

We have no idea how long the scoring practices to change results were going on in Atlanta. As the educators assert their innocence, perhaps it never really happened. But of one thing we are sure, educators are accountable. No longer is it about how one teaches, it is about what children learn. The stakes have changed. 

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