Was the Atlanta education scandal inevitable?


The cheating scandal in the Atlanta public school system has shocked the nation, though it’s a little unclear why. Educators and parents concerned about overemphasis on high-stakes standardized tests have been predicting this kind of thing for years.

Late last week we learned that Atlanta's former superintendent, Beverly Hall, had been indicted on racketeering charges. She was allegedly involved with many of that district’s teachers in an organized effort to change student test scores from failing to passing. Hall received more than $500,000 in bonuses for the turnaround in Atlanta’s schools.

But the scores improved so dramatically that Georgia’s education officials stopped buying it. Hall has maintained her innocence, but some teachers involved with the scam are turning themselves in to authorities.

There have been reports of teachers changing test scores during the last few years, but they appeared to be isolated instances. The concern here is that no one really imagined that it could be so well coordinated from top administrators down through the ranks. And worse, no one really knows if it’s happening in other districts throughout the country, and to what extent.

But it’s hard to believe that the Atlanta scandal is an isolated incident. The pressure to hold teachers accountable for student test scores began under former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law. And it was heightened under President Obama’s Race to the Top legislation.

Under RTTT, states are not only competing for education dollars, but most states have enacted teacher evaluation policies linking teachers' professional performance to student academic performance. The test scores are used to assess both teachers and students.

But the Atlanta story illustrates what happens when frustration turns into desperation and fears about job security.

There’s no question that tests can provide educators, students, and parents with important information about a child’s proficiency. And tests can serve as an indicator of how effective a teacher is in the classroom.

But test scores are not a substitute for equitable resources, increased parental involvement, safe neighborhoods, and the wraparound services needed by many children from poor households.

If we haven’t figured this out by now, maybe we’re cheating, too.