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APS teacher: Shift focus from courtroom sentences to classroom testing

APS teacher Clara Totenberg Green says a lot of the discussion about the outcome of the Atlanta cheating trial has overlooked the voices of teachers and failed to ponder the standardized testing culture that still dominates today.

A teacher in an APS charter school, Green addresses those issues in this column.

By Clara Totenberg Green

One day after nine educators were sentenced to prison in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, standardized testing began across Georgia. I am a graduate of the Atlanta Public Schools. I am also a middle school teacher in an APS school.

I also can’t help but think about the conversation that’s not being held. What we are talking about is the educators’ sentencing. What we’re not talking about is the massive and aggressive standardized testing culture that the educators functioned within.

Amidst the media maelstrom surrounding the case, the most common argument has been that as a result of their cheating, the educators harmed the children. Judge Baxter said, “I think there were hundreds, thousands of children who were harmed in this city...This was not a victimless crime.”

Yet the idea that purity in a massive testing regime will ensure quality education and success for all children is simply untrue. Quality education comes when we fund our schools, train our teachers, and implement teaching methods that instill a passion for learning. The high-stakes testing model directly counters these very educational methods that we know work best.

One of my coworkers is a brilliant math teacher. She’s passionate, consistent, and loves her subject. The other day, in the midst of test prep, she told me that she was teaching her students new concepts that they clearly didn’t understand. They needed extra days to practice the concepts before moving onto the next lesson, but she didn’t have the time for that. She was forced to push forward to make sure she covered every standard before test time, at any cost.

Her experiences parallel those of every educator I know, including my own. The best unit I taught this year was on South African apartheid. We spent three weeks analyzing historical documents, photographs and films, and conducting interactive activities. The deeper we dug, the more they wanted to learn. I watched my students become passionate and enthusiastic about history and learning. They still talk about that unit, six months later. And yet, three weeks on apartheid meant less time to cover other required material, less time to prepare them for the test. Teaching my students in an effective manner that inspired and awakened them to history will most likely hurt their test scores.

As the year progressed, we rushed to cover everything mandated by the state of Georgia. In order to do this, I was unable to replicate the very teaching style that made the apartheid unit so effective – in depth, prolonged study. I am required to teach too much in too little time so students can “pass” the test, which results in teaching a lot of things not very well. In public schools across America, including in my own classroom, teachers are consciously implementing teaching techniques that we know do not work in the long run.

Within a high-stakes testing culture, it doesn’t matter what level the kids began the school year. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been off their medication for weeks because their mother lost her job. It doesn’t matter if they are homeless, or don’t have a parent at home to help them with their homework. It doesn’t matter how hard they’ve tried throughout the year, or all the progress they’ve made. Their passions, their creativity, their imaginations - none of that matters. The only thing that counts is a test score.

Good schools consider the whole child, not just their performance on a single test. At my school, we do value test scores. But we also value the entirety of a student’s work through the year, their content knowledge, and their social and-emotional needs. We know that when a student is so terrified about standardized tests that she vomits on her exam she's probably not going to accurately demonstrate her skills.

Was the purpose of this legal ordeal to punish the educators whose lives had already been ruined? Was the purpose to deter other teachers when, in fact, the shortest jail sentence would have accomplished that? Believe me, the message was sent loud and clear, long before the criminal prosecution was even initiated. Tomorrow I go back to a testing environment in which both the teachers and the students are terrified. But none of these developments help children.

In fact, according to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, Georgia has cut the education budget over $8.3 billion since 2003. In 2002 we were 26th in the nation in spending per student and by 2012 we were 35th. And at the same time, the rate of low-income students rapidly climbed. The percentage of low-income students rose from 44.2 percent in 2002 to 62.4 percent in 2015. Instead of providing these students the additional support and lower class sizes they need, state budget cuts require schools to do the exact opposite while still expecting them to meet testing benchmarks.

In other words, the very interventions needed to give children a fighting chance are being slashed from beneath them. Isn’t that the true crime?


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.