This week Georgia governor Nathan Deal released an investigative report into allegations of systemic cheating on standardized tests in Atlanta Public Schools (including both elementary and middle schools). The “cheaters” in this case, though, were not the children in the building, but the adults: teachers and administrators who erased students’ wrong answers and penciled in the correct ones. Altogether, 178 educators across 44 schools were indicted in the report, which described the school system’s culture as one where cheating was encouraged and whistle-blowers punished. The scandal is all the more stinging since Superintendent Beverly Hall has received national accolades for her success in turning Atlanta’s schools around
Perhaps the most egregious instance of strategic cheating took place at Parks Middle School where the principal (hailed as a “miracle worker”) was held up by Hall as a model leader because of the dramatic increases in test scores under his tenure. Teachers at the school describe him as being obsessed with numbers to the point of pressuring his subordinates to engage in cheating. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution report on Parks depicts the kind of co-dependent relationship between the principle and Supt. Hall that made the school system culture so conducive to cheating: “Hall wanted high test scores, Waller produced them, and Hall rewarded and protected him” (Judd, July 6 2011). This protection took the form of Hall overlooking serious accusations of fraud against the principle and insisting that criticism against him would go nowhere.
The public outcry against APS has been fierce. Parents are rightly concerned about the quality of their children’s education being compromised and the damage such practices to do children. Gov. Deal summarizes these moral concerns in the report: “Students are harmed, parents lose sight of the child’s true progress, and taxpayers are cheated.”
These concerns should not be limited to such scandalous instances of academic fraud, however. It is common practice for teachers throughout all grade levels and school systems to manipulate students grades by curving test scores, “rubber stamping” assignments with A’s for just turning work in, not penalizing students for missing work, and giving bogus “extra credit” work that adds points to grades without expecting students to demonstrate achievement.
When I taught science at a metro Atlanta public school I was told by my immediate supervisor to “curve” final exam grades by taking the square root of their raw score and multiplying it by ten (so, for instance, a score of a 36 would be raised to a 60, a 49 a 70). There was no justification for this method except that it would cause more students to pass the course. There were students in my class that had not passed a test all semester, but had a barely passing grade (above a 69) going into the final exam. In my view, if they performed poorly on the final exam that revealed a serious lack of understanding of the subject and I believed they did not deserve credit for the class. But as a consequence of this manipulative grading scheme, students who had a 71 average could make a 36 on the final exam and still pass the class (the final exam was already weighted so low as to not have a major impact on their overall grade, another way grades are manipulated to produce higher scores). Giving students credit for a course in which they did not truly learn so troubled my conscience that I refused to change the grades. Angry school administrators responded by demanding that the department chair secretly change my grades so that more students would pass.
In case you are wondering if my story is merely an isolated incident of manipulating grades to produce higher marks, there was a grade inflation report released in 2008 under then governor Sonny Purdue that showed enormous disparities between the passing rate of high school courses and the passing rate of corresponding standardized end-of-course tests, which are designed to measure student achievement of curriculum standards: in most Georgia counties, students were passing the courses at a much higher rate than these exams. This happens because teachers are often pressured by parents and administrators not to give failing grades to students even if they do not achieve. Even C’s are discouraged in many educational circles.
This practice of manipulating classroom grades to inflate students report cards is in many ways morally equivalent to what these Atlanta school teachers are guilty of. The motive is similar: higher grades make the teacher and the school look good. The consequences on the families involved are the same: both students and parents are deceived into thinking that the children are learning more than they actually are. And both practices waste taxpayer money. The United States spends more taxpayer money per child than any country in the world yet our educational outcomes have been in decline for decades.
The kind of moral outcry against APS for blatant cheating on standardized tests should be echoed throughout the state (and nation) in response to policies that reward children with grades that deceive them, their parents, and society about what children are really learning. Sadly, saying that one’s child is an all A/B student means little in this educational climate beyond that they showed up to class, were not disruptive, and did most of their homework. Our children will typically accomplish as little as our educational system rewards them for. Is this all we expect from our kids?