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When There's No Right Answer: Cheating Scandals in Public Schools

Last week, my students who took the AP exam received their scores, and many of them did quite well. For me, their teacher, this was a relatively low-stakes exam, in that by virtue of the fact that very few kids even take AP English Literature and Composition, and the fact that it's not required for graduation, neither my personal evaluation nor the school's are tied to closely with the AP kids' exam scores. (Regents Exam scores--those are a different story entirely.) So, despite my nervousness about how their scores would reflect on my efforts at preparing them, and my relief at the fact that in the end they did well, this situation lacked potential for highly adverse effects on our school, on me as a teacher, or on the kids themselves.

Conversely, Rachel Aviv's New Yorker piece "Wrong Answer," about a highly publicized cheating scandal in a public middle-school in Atlanta, tells the story of a high-stakes testing situation in which students' exam scores had potentially huge impacts on their lives--specifically, on whether or not their school would be allowed to remain open, and continuing to function as a safe-haven for students in an impoverished community. Under enormous pressure from superintendents to raise scores, and from the city itself to avoid closure, faculty at this middle school cheated the system in various ways, including looking at tests before the official release date, and changing students' answers (under the guise of erasing stray pencil marks) to make certain test-score targets. For several years, they got away with this.

Reading Aviv's article, I couldn't help but feel sympathy for the teachers and principal who participated in this exercise, despite its inherent dishonesty and the fact that whenever schools falsely obtain high results, it makes it that much harder for the non-cheating schools, whose students are then held to unreasonable standards. The students in this middle school were learning, as one of the teachers interviewed in the article points out; however, they simply came in without requisite skills to meet certain scores on these tests. By changing the kids' answers to boost scores, the school was able receive extra funds and grants to provide students with a variety of clubs, trips, enrichment opportunities, and most importantly, avoid closure--thus providing kids "who came to school with bad breath and parkas that smelled of urine" with a safe-haven in communities overrun with violence and poverty, and a reprieve from the disruption of being split up and sent to different schools across the county.

In the end, the true culprit in this scandal is the type of policy--from NCLB, or RTTT--that hamstrings schools into accountability for unobtainable results, without consideration for outside factors, in order to provide students with the types of benefits and opportunities that would be taken for granted in any wealthier school district. As David Berliner, former dean of the education school at Arizona State University, remarks in this article, teachers in schools like this one are asked to mitigate factors far outside of their reasonable ability to influence: "The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse to do nothing about poverty." Well said.

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