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Atlanta Injustice Demands a Response

As a teacher, I've always understood that students must face consequences for cheating. I've written up referrals, and had those meetings with students and parents, and I don't back down from carrying out the penalties outlined in my course descriptions and school policies.

But throughout my career I've also accepted responsibility for creating conditions that decrease the likelihood of cheating, and I'm pleased that incidents of cheating in my classes have steadily dropped over the years. It's not a secret recipe, but rather one that most teachers understand. Make sure students have ample instruction, feedback, practice, and time to prepare to do their best work. Make sure the assigned work is manageable and meaningful, with clear expectations that are worthy of an honest effort. Make sure that no particular assessment has stakes that are so high as to induce panic or cloud judgment. And yes, it's also important to have spelled out the consequences of cheating ahead of time, and follow through consistently. In my experience, the existence of severe consequences alone is not a highly effective preventitive measure. Having done my best to support students, I'm more comfortable enforcing the consequences if they choose to cheat.

In contrast, I'd be feeling more than a little uncomfortable if I were responsible for any part of the policies that contributed to events leading up the April 1 conviction of eleven Atlanta educators, on charges related to faking standardized test results. But before I fault the policy makers, like many authors who've weighed in on this topic, I'll offer this standard disclaimer: I don't condone cheating on tests or falsifying records. Instead of repeating that entire sentence ad nauseum in this blog post, I'm going to insert [SDGH] from time to time: "Standard disclaimer goes here." 

What constructive lessons might be derived from this sorry story? Can future incidents be prevented? Are there consequences for the policy makers responsible for this environment? Yes, the guilty are responsible for their choices, but I also want to see someone take responsibility for the weakness of the policies that helped create this situation. Looking at the problem from a classroom perspective, I could give my students a final exam that counts for most of their grade in the class, turn my back while they're taking the test, and still punish them if they cheat - but you could hardly call that good teaching. Among the living architects of No Child Left Behind, does anyone recognize or acknowledge fault? How about the current (non-)leaders who've left us saddled with NCLB for so long beyond its supposed expiration? [SDGH]

I'm not holding my breath though; accountability generally flows in the direction of the less powerful. Still, let's note that the use of standardized tests for school and teacher accountability fails to meet any of the conditions I described above that would reduce the chances of cheating.

  • Though marketed as such, standardized testing is not part of a regimen designed to provide the quality, quantity, or timeliness of feedback to improve teaching practice. (See: National Research Council, and James Popham).
  • The tests are not truly meaningful to students or teachers - except in the imposed-from-above sense. There's no intrinsic value to the task, no external correlary of significant meaning or merit. (In other words, bubble tests do not transfer to meaningful life activity in the ways that writing, problem-solving, discussion, performance, creation and experimentation do).
  • And finally, for teachers and schools, the stakes for these tests are exceedingly high, to an extent that clearly can induce panic and cloud judgment. [SDGH]

No one can really be surprised; attaching greater consequences to a single measure usually results in people trying to manipulate the metrics and game the system. Richard Rothstein expands on that idea in his blog post on the Atlanta case, offering examples from several other fields, and many of us in the blogosphere have been pointing out the perils of Campbell's Law for years: when you attach high stakes to a single metric, you inevitably corrupt that metric. I'm not using Campbell's Law to argue against accountability, or against testing, but simply to explain the current, sorry state of affairs.

It's also troubling to consider the costs and work expended to bring about this conviction. The trial of these educators lasted six months. Jurors spent one half year of their lives in limbo hearing this case, and legal personnel and resources were tied up for years. What a waste. William H. Thomas, a former federal prosecutor told the New York Times, "For me, the real question is: Was the victory worth the candle? Have they killed a fly with the proverbial sledgehammer?" Setting aside Thomas's mixed metaphors, I concur with the sentiment. So much work went in to jailing eleven educators who erased some wrong answers and put in the right answers, while we see relatively little apparent interest in punishing corporate, military, and government malfeasance that produces billions of dollars in economic damage or more sever consequences in victims' lives. [SDGH] 

And there's still sentencing to follow; the defendants are awaiting sentence in jail, and have already lost their jobs and been labeled convicted felons. If they get more than time served, and the judge has implied they will, I question whether the punishment will fit the crime. I think any claims of harm or damage to students are exaggerated, or miss a larger point. It's an anemic system that would rely heavily on these measures to help us teach a child. Student performance on classwork all year long should provide ample opportunities to assess skills and address learning needs. No teacher or school doing a half-decent job would look at one suprisingly high test result and conclude that all of the other observations and measures of the student were wrong. I can't imagine any student was suddenly deprived of necessary support because of these fraudulent scores. I've had plenty of struggling students who performed well on standardized tests, and students who did well in my class but produced weak standardized test scores. It's no great challenge to find out my students' strengths and weaknesses using classroom assessments (the challenge is in helping every student improve as much as possible!), and the tests are so weakly aligned with my students' actual learning needs that I would have no inclination to adjust instruction based on standardized tests. [SDGH]

Did the cheating by these educators compromise the integrity of their school accountability system? Well, that depends on if you think the system had much integrity to begin with, but we can agree that cheating invalidated information from schools where cheating occurred and distorted school comparisons. Still, any extended prison sentence for this crime should be seen for what it is: the continued and extended scapegoating of the least powerful for the sins of a politicized education system. How will education leaders in Atlanta, or Georgia, or Washington, D.C. respond? How will we respond?

[SDGH]

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