Take Care in Responding to Atlanta Cheating

Much has been written about the Atlanta cheating scandal. The progress of Atlanta Public Schools was a beacon for many reformers of system success with real gains happening for a huge number of students. The cheating scandal rightfully raised questions on every claim of success and practically derailed all their efforts—the bad as well as the good.  Of all that’s been written on the scandal, we recommend Aspen Institute’s Ross Wiener’s op-ed in the Washington Post and Former APS Superintendent Beverly Hall’s EdWeek Commentary. They shine clear light on the real lessons to be learned from Atlanta’s crisis. Hall warns, “As awful as this cheating scandal is, it would be even more awful if we learned the wrong lesson from it. The culprit is not standardized testing or teacher accountability. We need both.”

For us there are four crucial takeaways:

  1. Cheating cannot become a reason to shrink away from collecting data on student progress or high standards for all kids. While No Child Left Behind has serious flaws, it has shined a light on the importance of raising the bar for all students and measuring progress against reaching it.  The fact that cheating has resulted doesn’t mean that defining clear standards and measuring whether we reach them is wrong. It means we need to better support and guide schools and teachers towards meeting these learning goals.
  2. We need to make sure the standards and tests are “worth teaching to”.  Right now, the rigor and sophistication of learning standards and the tests that measure them vary dramatically across states.  With some states like Massachusetts having standards and resulting outcomes that put them at the top of the heap globally, while others with standards for learning that do not represent our nation’s aspirations for learning.  It makes no sense to design evaluation schemes around measure that don’t insure a high bar and promote the teaching of critical thinking and advanced skills. The new “Common Core” standards that 42 states have committed to implementing along with the new assessments that are being creating at a national level will set a new higher threshold for children in many states.
  3. Evaluation requires multiple measures not just one high-stakes test. No single measure of student outcomes tells the whole story of student progress or teaching effectiveness.  Meaningful evaluation tools will include multiple measures of student outcomes, additional information on teaching contexts, and observation based information.
  4. Using data with integrity should pave the way towards continuous improvement. For teachers to effectively teach they need to know what their students are and are not learning. Ongoing and end of year assessment of learning makes this possible.

As Ross Wiener says, “Abandoning reliance on testing is neither feasible nor advisable. Important considerations of equity, quality and scale make it essential to use tests in strategic, consequential ways. But we need to be honest about unintended consequences and more attuned to the line between healthy and unhealthy pressure.”