Monday, September 29, 2014

The Atlanta Racketeers

In Atlanta today 38 educators and administrators must turn themselves in to authorities after a three year investigation into cheating on standardized tests. Many more have already made deals with the prosecutor. These educators are being indicted under the RICO or racketeering statutes. The cheating was apparently pervasive and came directly from the Superintendent. A 15 year old student who attended one of the elementary schools involved spoke on the radio about the cheating. She and her mother complained that the student's education was compromised because of the cheating and that now the student struggles to work at grade level. She laments that she'll always be tainted by the fact that her scores were altered.

Let's examine this more closely keeping in mind that cheating is wrong and not an example we want to set for children.  Firstly, NCLB imposes severe penalties on schools and districts that don't show improvement. The federal government's algorithms for measuring improvement are extremely complicated and a school that scores well overall may be penalized because one subgroup, say, second language learners, didn't improve as much as they "should" have. There are financial penalties for districts and other penalties for individual schools. The punitive atmosphere created by NCLB encourages cheating by putting tremendous pressure on teachers and administrators to make sure students have the highest scores possible.

As a teacher I proctored my share of standardized tests. I walked around my third grade classroom making sure that everyone was on the right page, not writing in the test booklet, and not skipping any questions. Strolling around the room I could clearly see students marking wrong answers to questions they knew. How discouraging to watch competent students make careless mistakes! How tempting to walk by and silently point to the right answer. But I never did and I eventually stopped walking around during the tests to alleviate my own frustration. Of course I knew that the next year I could be called on the carpet for those test scores. In fact there were many years my entire school was berated for our students' test scores because  one subgroup or other  failed to make the progress demanded by NCLB.

Racketeering, conjures up mobsters, not teachers and administrators. Racketeering is a charge levied against those who engage in fraudulent or dishonest business dealings for financial gain. I'm dead certain that none of those charged were personally enriched by changing students' test scores. Their school district had a lot to gain by scoring well on tests but personally teachers and administrators did not. Charging the employees under RICO seems a stretch, it's what the feds use when they've got nothing else.

Lastly, the 15 year-old girl on the radio. The unasked question: would anyone have changed her scores if she had been proficient and making good progress? The fact that she is still lagging behind her classmates points to her continued lack of academic achievement five years after the scandal. My suspicion is that her scores were changed precisely because they were low.  I don't know how it works in Atlanta but here in Orange County all students have access to the curriculum and teachers provide instruction based on daily performance not last year's standardized tests. Those tests are but one indicator, albeit a poor one, of academic progress.

It's wrong to change test scores, to cheat but we must examine the policies that produced an atmosphere where cheating was thought of as an acceptable means to an end. NCLB created a culture of punishment in education. Who doesn't want to avoid punishment? Especially for something, over which you have no control. No teacher anywhere can "make" a student read carefully, think critically, or care about a test in which they have no stake.

I feel for those educators in Atlanta who bought in to NCLB and let it distort their judgement.

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