Revelations accusing teachers and principals of rampant cheating in Atlanta struck the education world much like the latest bust of a major college football program.
Educators were quick to deplore cheating and impugn a testing culture gone awry. But not so many wanted to demonize Atlanta or its teachers.
No public schools are immune to the pressures of state test scores. And the next district to reveal cracks could be yours.
“Whenever you have an accountability system with severe sanctions attached to it,” said Betsy Regan, who coordinates testing in the Shawnee Mission School District, “ it drives a tendency to work around the system.”
Kansas officials report no significant test violations in the No Child Left Behind era. Missouri also has reported to be clean, with a couple of exceptions.
The key is to measure student growth in many ways, not just in state scores, Regan said. And everyone, from principals to aides, has to know the rules guarding the integrity of each test.
But it’s easy to see why a Clinton, Mo., teacher suspended in 2010 for giving inappropriate prompts to students blamed pressure to improve scores.
All communities see similar scenarios, said Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. Superintendents are hired to turn districts around. They charge principals with getting their buildings in line. And principals demand results from their teachers, no excuses.
And when it comes to measuring those results, Schaeffer said, “Test scores become the sole coin of the realm.”
In Atlanta, a governor’s investigation determined that the school district — whose leader won recognition as one of the nation’s top superintendents — had made its rise on “ill-gotten” gains.
The state followed a protocol of examinations similar to that used in Missouri’s 2005 investigation of the now-defunct Wellston School District.
They started by identifying scores that had improved beyond what could be reasonably expected. Then analysis of erasures, patterns in common answers and other exposures built the case that the scores were not real.
Then came the confessions of educators who told Atlanta investigators of “erasure parties,” among other tales.
Systemic cheating will not be able to stand, said Mark Van Zandt, the general counsel of Missouri’s education department, because state test scores “get a great deal of scrutiny.”
For more isolated infractions, however, Missouri and Kansas rely mostly on whistle-blowers. State monitoring teams hit only a small fraction of the schools.
Real success stories happen, but schools better be able to demonstrate the guts behind their scores.
“If you get one that stands out,” Regan said, “you start asking why.”