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Atlanta test-score scandal illustrates difficulties of education reform

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on April 11, 2013)

Last month, we witnessed the shameful spectacle of 35 public school educators being indicted on racketeering charges in Atlanta. All of these people turned themselves in and were booked at the Fulton County Jail.

So what led to this singular event? Beverly Hall, the former superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools, is accused of intimidating area superintendents, principals and teachers into erasing students’ wrong answers on Georgia’s Criterion Referenced Competency Test, the state’s equivalent of Tennessee’s TCAP, and replacing them with the right ones. Some teachers who proctored the tests gave students the correct responses directly.

This went on for years, and the various parties, most notably Hall herself, were rewarded with increased professional stature and substantial bonuses. Failure to meet Hall’s ambitious targets resulted in criticism, threats of termination and actual firing. One honest parent who pointed out that her child could not possibly have done as well on the test as it appeared was ignored.

Eventually, though, even the school system’s boosters could not ignore Atlanta’s too-good-to-be-true test results. A state investigation of 2009 test scores turned up a suspicious pattern of erasures and corrections at most of Atlanta’s elementary and middle schools. A widespread effort to obstruct investigators and bully teachers and principals into silence followed.

In Philadelphia last week, two former school principals surrendered their certifications to avoid further discipline in another state test cheating scandal. Pennsylvania officials investigating at least 15 districts or charter schools have filed more than 140 professional misconduct complaints.

Let me be clear. There is absolutely no excuse for teachers, principals or central-office personnel to falsify or manipulate the test results of the students they are supposed to be teaching. Those who do should be disciplined, dismissed or, where they have benefited monetarily, arrested.

But those concerned with accountability need to remember that standardized achievement tests were designed to measure student learning, not teacher or principal performance. Tests can help us determine whether students have mastered subject matter, and they can even help identify classrooms in which learning excels or flounders, but they can’t tell us what a teacher did well or did not do to make learning happen.

We need additional measures to determine whether teachers or principals are succeeding in their profession. The Gates Foundation, for example, is advocating for teacher evaluation systems that incorporate factors such as classroom observations and student surveys. Bill Gates also has called for stronger professional development and for rewarding high-performing teachers with mentoring and coaching responsibilities. The EdTPA that Vanderbilt and several Tennessee universities are exploring uses further measures such as videotaped lectures and written lesson plans to determine teacher readiness for the classroom.

Just as we need multiple measures of teacher performance, we should understand that education reform is complex and requires complex solutions. Cheating scandals in Atlanta and elsewhere should remind us that when we fail, the ultimate victims are the students.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.