Rachel Aviv’s account of the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal in a recent New Yorker is one of the most heartrending stories about education you’re likely to read.
Yes, teachers cheated. They gained access to test questions. They even changed students’ answers. At least 178 educators at 58 schools were caught up in the behavior.
But in Aviv’s telling, teachers weren’t motivated by greed, nor were they especially dishonest. In a culture where test scores were everything, they feared losing their jobs. And they worried about their students: the impact of being judged failures, and what would happen if their schools were closed.
The article centers on Damany Lewis, a math teacher at Parks Middle School with a strong sense of compassion for his students. Lewis says he initially resisted principal Christopher Waller’s suggestion that the school cheat to meet district-imposed test score targets. But he eventually joined a group of teachers who changed students’ answers on standardized tests from wrong to right.
If the close-knit school didn’t succeed, the principal said, it would be shut down and students sent to schools outside their neighborhood. Lewis says that “it was my sole obligation to never let that happen.”
Conversely, when the high-poverty school kept making improbable gains in performance, no one suspected anything was wrong. It was featured in a promotional film made by the school district and highlighted in an Annie E. Casey Foundation report titled “Beating the Odds.”
“The report noted that Waller kept an index card in his pocket listing all the school’s achievements,” Aviv writes, “which he read aloud to parents and students. ‘Even the kids know their data,’ Waller said.”
The obsession with data came straight from the top: from Superintendent Beverly Hall, who was named national superintendent of the year in 2009 for Atlanta’s progress. Investigators concluded Hall and other administrators knew or should have known people were cheating.
Hall, now bedridden and undergoing treatment for cancer, faces up to 45 years in prison if convicted. But Lewis, the first Atlanta teacher fired in the scandal, wonders if the superintendent actually didn’t know what was going on – if her faith in data and test results blinded her to the evidence.
One of the saddest lines in the story comes from a student who recalls the celebration when the school made big gains on test scores. “We had heard what everyone was saying: ‘Y’all aren’t good enough.’ Now we could finally go to school with our heads held high,” she says.
Until, that is, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution found test-score gains at some schools were close to statistically impossible. Government investigations followed, then indictments.
Of course, the love affair with data isn’t unique to Atlanta. Neither is the idea that schools serving lots of poor kids should produce the same test scores as schools in affluent areas.
We want to believe that, with dedicated teachers and relentless effort, all kids will ace standardized tests. I love reading stories about high-poverty schools that beat the odds. I love telling those stories. And it’s true, schools should do all they can to ensure that all students learn. Yes, there need to be high standards and expectations for all kids. It’s important to collect and make smart use of data.
But the Atlanta story should remind us that a single-minded focus on test scores can lead to unexpected and even tragic consequences.