Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What lesson from Atlanta school testing scandals?

An article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution by Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools,  and an expert on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, one year ago touted the fantastic gains being made in the Atlanta Public Schools:
 Atlanta’s public schools have made the fastest reading gains of any major city school district in the country. They also have made significant progress in math. Those are the facts.   Between 2002 and 2009, Atlanta’s fourth- and eighth-graders increased their reading scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress — the “Nation’s Report Card” — by 14 points. The next fastest-improving city school systems, the District of Columbia and New York, saw their fourth-graders gaining 12 and 11 points, respectively. No other city’s eighth-graders improved their reading skills by more than seven points.
The article goes on to explain that experts came to Atlanta to learn how other cities could replicate Atlanta's amazing success.    
Earlier this year, a team of national reading, math and science experts who have examined instructional programs in scores of cities nationwide came into Atlanta to investigate the reasons behind the district’s gains, especially in reading.
What was the reason?   Vision; proper use of data; accountability and great leadership in the Superintendent's chair:
The results of the examination — based on extensive interviews, data analysis and document review — attributed the improvements to a number of organizational and instructional factors: strong community support; an increasingly cohesive school board; a visionary and skilled superintendent; a clearly articulated strategy for reform that was sustained over a prolonged period; a strong mechanism for holding adults accountable for student results; good data with which to monitor progress and inform classroom practice; and other factors.
By the time the article was written, already troubling rumors had begun to circulate that at least some of Atlanta's test scores were the product of fraud.   Yet plaudits for Atlanta persisted.  The education establishment, pundits from all sides, desperate for proof that great gains in education can occur on the cheap, had seized on districts like Atlanta and Washington, D.C., looking as education always does for that magic bullet, that free ride to transformation. 

The AASA, the school administrator's journal, in February of 2010 touted Atlanta's success as proof that use of the so-called "Balanced Scorecard" and strategic planning could transform a troubled school district.:
Ten years ago, the Atlanta Public Schools had low and declining student achievement, demoralized teachers, crumbling buildings, high turnover among superintendents (average tenure of two years) and disaffected parents pulling their children out of the system. More than 60 percent of the city’s high school students missed at least two weeks of school per year, and the district had more than 700 teaching vacancies. The system was failing its students and stakeholders. Fast forward 10 years, and Atlanta has reversed its dismal numbers. Fourth graders’ reading and math scores are nearly on a par with their Georgia peers, chronic absences have plummeted, and 91 percent of the district’s elementary schools made adequate yearly progress in 2009. Last June, the New Schools at Carver had a 94 percent graduation rate. Superintendent Beverly Hall said of the transformation, “Atlanta Public Schools is becoming a model urban school district.”
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., USA Today began a series of stories suggesting that success under reform minded Superintendent Michelle Rhee, might likewise be the product of test alterations.  Rhee had created a performance pay and bonus system that provided substantial financial rewards to principals who met district goals.  One hundred three schools in the District displayed remarkably high erasure rates, often a sign of cheating:
USA TODAY examined testing irregularities in the District of Columbia's public schools because, under Rhee, the system became a national symbol of what high expectations and effective teaching could accomplish. Federal money also was at play: Last year, D.C. won an extra $75 million for public and charter schools in the U.S. government's Race to the Top competition. Test scores were a factor.
In Atlanta, a recently released report alleges that at least 100 school employees are implicated in a massive systemic cheating scandal.  Allegedly, 38 principals, were involved in facilitating the cheating, cheating on a massive scale.

The Huffington Post writes:

The report paints a vivid picture of a culture where teachers were publicly humiliated or fired for underperformance, and whistleblowers faced more consternation than cheaters. For example, a group of teachers at Gideons Elementary School held a weekend "changing party" at a teacher's home, where they systematically altered test answers to boost results.  The report describes the case of Michael Milstead, who, upon beginning his tenure as principal of the Harper Archer Middle School, noticed an incredible gap between students' elementary school scores and the scores they were achieving at his school. After he raised the issue of inflated scores at a May 2008 meeting, an education official confronted him -- and he was soon told his services were no longer needed.

This is a blog, and so I should end with an opinion.   I know that I should be able to discern a deep lesson here, but all I have to say is, oh dear, what a disappointment.   Next time a pundit tells me that he or she has discovered a super star school district with a great visionary leader whose reforms have magically transformed a school district,  what am I supposed to believe?


  1. Thanks, Jerry. It sure is disappointing that these role models for our children would cheat. But I do think the administrative culture being set up in our schools encourages this bad behavior.
    Val Rogosheske

  2. I'd be interested in seeing if any of those involved in the cheating had received promotions with raises. If so, can the money be recouped?

  3. In Atlanta, a prosecutor is looking at bringing criminal charges. Val, I think there are separate issues here. The one issue is a culture inside the school district that evidently decided to cheat as a shortcut to dealing with the pressures of trying to raise student performance faster than they could achieve. Education is a profession, and professionals are supposed to resist those pressures. Instead of having cheating parties, they should have been organizing to call public attention to the actual test scores and to fight for a real solution. The other issue is the culture created at the top in Atlanta, it appears, that retaliated against persons who tried to do the right thing. That culture results, in part, from a massive failure in our national leadership class to recognize that raising a generation of children a full standard deviation upwards cannot be accomplished with panaceas.

  4. So agree, Dr. Von Korff ... I've read too many blogs and Tweets from educators and non-educators who wish to "explain away" the cheating scandal. As a 24-year educator there is no excuse for what happened in Atlanta, and what now appears to be a growing epidemic among other school districts that followed a similar pattern. WE ARE professionals, and WE DO know better ... no excuses. Atlanta and the others, you give us all a black eye. Shame on you!

  5. Yes, you are right. There are no excuses. It's a bit like the rioting in London. The rioting is a manifestation of a social system that is causing alienation, but that alienation is no excuse for rioting. If the testing system is foolish and the standards unreachable, educators could refuse to administer the tests, or conduct a one-day sick out, or organize some kind of public rebellion. There are plenty of ways for professionals to make change: cheating on examinations is not one of them.

    Thanks for calling me Dr, by the way, but my doctorate is a Juris-Doctor.


comments welcome