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Opinion: Real scandal in APS and other districts is intense focus on testing

AJC education reporter Molly Bloom updated us last week on students whose test scores were changed in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal and whether they're getting the promised academic help.

She wrote:

By the time Atlanta Public Schools got serious about fixing the legacy of a districtwide cheating conspiracy, half of the victims were already gone — dropped out, moved away, graduated. The other half, about 3,000 kids, are now the target of a 6-year, $18 million program to make up for educators “helping” students bubble in the right answers on state tests.

That effort, which combines tutoring, counseling and social services, ran through about $2.6 million before it fully launched this year. And the extra help it provides leaves out hundreds of children likely affected by cheating; it’s only open to children whose test answer sheets showed high rates of wrong-to-right erasures in the single year state investigators confirmed cheating, even though former Atlanta educators say cheating went on for years before then.

Educator J. Marcus Patton took up the issue in his blog this week. With his permission, I am sharing his column. A veteran teacher who has written several columns for the AJC Get Schooled blog, Patton is working on a book, “History is Story: Reforming the Way We Teach and Learn About Ourselves in the Information Age.”

By J. Marcus Patton

The children who were harmed by the notorious Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal are finally getting some help, sort of.  A story in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week stated that half of the approximately 6,000 students whose scores were changed on standardized tests dating back to the year 2009 are no longer enrolled in APS.  The story explains that a program has been set up to offer tutoring, counseling, and social services to the “victims” of the scandal – but it is only open to those students.

Some of the students cited in the article seemed unclear about why they were placed in the program.  Some students who had asked for help were required to wait for years to get it.  And many, many students who need extra help are not qualified for the program because they were unlucky enough to have had teachers who didn’t change their answers on standardized tests when they were in elementary school.

This tragic mess was mismanaged from the beginning. It was created in an environment in which test scores have become the unquestioned standard of measurement in education – pushing aside all data about the quality of the learning experience.  It was provoked by a celebrated school superintendent who put enormous pressure on teachers to show improved performance on tests.  It really screwed things up for the number crunchers who misled the public.  And an enthusiastic prosecutor and judge made sure a few teachers and administrators paid the price for everyone’s inconvenience and embarrassment.

But did it adversely affect the students?  I just don’t see it.

A study commissioned by the current superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools goes to great lengths to describe the difficulty in separating the effects of the scandal from the myriad of other influences on a child’s performance in school, and concludes that the effects were “mixed” in math “moderate” in reading and English/Language Arts – “about the same negative impact as a student being taught by a first-year teacher compared to a teacher with five or more years of experience.”

Who was hurt here?  Certainly the former superintendent, whose reputation was pretty much trashed, the educators who were put through the grinder of the criminal justice system, the data collectors who were given corrupted data ….

But were the students – the specific students whose scores were changed – harmed any more than any other students whose education is being judged by standardized tests? Whose learning is directed by overworked teachers forced by their superiors to focus on appearances instead of quality? Who are caught in a system that focuses on uniformity of outcomes instead of cultivating individual talents and abilities?

Our educational system is broken, and it is laughable to think that a program designed to help a few kids and exclude all others is anything other than a public relations move by Atlanta Public Schools.  It promotes the fiction that the scandal was a discrete event.  It was not.  The truth is that our acceptance of easily-measurable outcomes as a mark of achievement in education is an insult to actual learning, and sustains a serious and ongoing harm to our children.

Every student deserves individual attention.  Every student deserves help in reaching his or her goals.  Every student deserves the best education possible regardless of the actions or inactions of adults in their lives.  It is time we take our obligation to the next generation seriously.


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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.