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Cheating Students Out of An Education
What happens when struggling students turn in honest work and teachers cheat to make it appear that the kids are succeeding? Well, what we’re seeing out of Atlanta – where a new report reveals that teachers boosted test scores by filling in the right answers for students – is much more than a debate about ethics in education. We’re seeing an assault on testing itself and on the principle of accountability. Look, for example, at the way the head of the second-largest union, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, rationalized the unethical behavior. The widespread cheating, she said, “does raise the bigger issue about when tests themselves and the high-stakes nature of them become the be-all end-all, as opposed to teaching and learning.” In fact, the “be-all end-all” of K-12 education is student achievement – which is advanced through “teaching and learning.” Testing may not be perfect, but it is the best objective way to measure progress. Test results give parents, voters, and public officials important metrics for holding teachers and principals accountable for doing their jobs. Cheating is wrong. Cheating by teachers, who are supposed to be role models, is worse. And cheating by teachers that harms students is worse still. Weingarten, however, is correct that there is a “bigger issue.” It’s not that tests are terrible but that accountability, the principle behind testing, is under attack, and leading the assault are those educators who fear the consequences of being held accountable. If we allow accountability to be undermined, then school reform –necessary for improving children’s lives and for gaining higher economic growth – will wither and die. Accountability has been the driving force behind school improvement since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in early 2002 on a vote of 87-10 in the Senate and 381-41 in the House. NCLB drew on a broad consensus in America that meeting high standards, verified through testing, was absolutely necessary to the success of every schoolchild. “More than 90 percent of parents thought students should have to pass a standardized test in order to be promoted, and more than 70 percent favored raising the requisite standards even if it meant ‘significantly more’ students would be held back,’” wrote Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute in a review of public opinion supporting NCLB. Now, we are learning that in some school systems, teachers – often with the encouragement of principals and administrators – have been corrupting accountability. Specifically, they have raised student scores by erasing incorrect answers and substituting the right ones. As a result, in the case of Atlanta, tens of thousands of students were promoted who were not ready for the next grade. A study released earlier this month found that 44 Atlanta schools were rated “severe,” with at least one-fourth of classrooms flagged for cheating. Some 178 educators were named as cheaters; 82 have already confessed. Atlanta is, so far, the worst, but it’s not alone. Investigations are continuing in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. It’s not hard to understand why some teachers are afraid of a process that judges their success in raising student achievement. Cheating is a way to subvert that accountability process. There are more respectable ways as well — one of which is to grant educators waivers to rules that hold them accountable for miserable student achievement. The U.S. Department of Education has already issued numerous waivers and is now preparing a plan which, according to the New York Times, would “free states from [NCLB’s] centerpiece requirement that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.” Meanwhile, several Western states, led by both Republican and Democratic governors, have told federal officials they will ignore key aspects of the federal law, which mandates consequences if all children don’t meet standards. Another way to undermine accountability is to make “testing” a dirty word – something Weingarten was attempting to do in her remarks. But no matter how it is done, subverting the process hurts the children who need help the most. Tests are not meant to punish children, but to help them succeed. As Kyle Wingfield, an opinion columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote, “Atlanta students face the worst consequences. Some current high schoolers may never have gotten a true appraisal on the state test, and many were denied the extra help they’d have gotten if their real scores were reported properly.” Accountability begins with leadership, and the good news is that the study found that the wretched case of Atlanta was not duplicated throughout Georgia. Consider, for example, the state’s largest district, Gwinnett County, northeast of the capital. Of the 92 Gwinnett schools in the study, not a single one was rated “severe” or even “moderate” for concerns about cheating. The reason for this clean record is not demographics. Gwinnett is not uniformly rich. More than half of its students receive a free or reduced-price lunch under federal guidelines. The reason is a leadership – starting with the superintendent, J. Alvin Wilbanks, and the school board chairman, Dr. Robert McClure, a dermatologist – that practices accountability every day. Gwinnett County, which won the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2010, recently became one of the innovative sites that are part of the Alliance to Reform Education Leadership, a Bush Institute program that seeks to improve the quality of public school principals around the country. It is truly horrifying to discover that teachers changed test results and thereby shortchanged the children in their classrooms. But the number of students hurt in the Atlanta cheating scandal will be tiny compared to the millions who will suffer if accountability – buffeted by more sophisticated and powerful attacks – is abandoned broadly. That’s the real risk.