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Atlanta testing scandal may be the tip of the iceberg, critics say

SHARE Atlanta testing scandal may be the tip of the iceberg, critics say

It's perhaps inevitable, after 11 of 12 teachers charged in the Atlanta test cheating scandal were convicted, that the scandal would serve as a Rorschach test for opponents and defenders of high-stakes standardized testing.

The teachers are scheduled to be sentenced this week on racketeering charges that could carry up to 20 years in prison, the AP reports.

But while no one is actually defending the cheating per se, many have begun questioning whether extreme expectations centered in standardized tests have nudged the teachers and administrators down that path.

"What the trial did not explore was whether (now-deceased Atlanta schools superintendent Beverly Hall) herself was reacting to a culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation that her board, state education officials, and the Bush and Obama administrations had created," writes Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, on a Washington Post education blog. "Just as her principals’ jobs were in jeopardy if test scores didn’t rise, her tenure, too, was dependent on ever rising test scores."

In a lengthy New Yorker article on the scandal published last summer, Rachel Aviv quoted John Ewing, past executive director of the American Mathematical Society, who said he was dumbfounded by educators' "infatuation with data.”

"He explains the problem in terms of Campbell’s law," Aviv wrote, "a principle that describes the risks of using a single indicator to measure complex social phenomena: the greater the value placed on a quantitative measure, like test scores, the more likely it is that the people using it and the process it measures will be corrupted."

"Not that Atlanta was the only place that felt the tremors," writes Darryl Owens for the Orlando Sentinel. "The timbers of testing accountability shook everywhere. And no wonder. A 2013 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that California officials in 2012 invalidated test scores at 23 schools. Why? Cheating by school officials. Similar allegations prompted probes in other states."

“We have a system in which people are told all the time that all that really matters is raising test scores,” Daniel Koretz, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told the Christian Science Monitor.

The line between gaming the system and outright illegality is a bit fuzzy, Koretz tells CSM. He says administrators often show teachers the types of items most commonly tested and often encourage them to skip chapters that are not.

But others object to the Atlanta scandal being used to score points against the growth of high-stakes testing nationally.

“There are plenty of reasons for teachers to take issue with some of the teacher evaluation (policies) that have been rolled out across the country. … But I’m a little bit troubled when folks say, ‘Oh, and it’s driving teachers to cheat,’ ” Michael McShane, an education policy research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, told CSM.

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com