In the Atlanta cheating scandal, standardized testing is the crime

OPINION - Hard prison time for cheating on an exam? Really? What do you do when the real crime is the exam itself? Sparks are flying in Atlanta as public school teachers were convicted of racketeering in connection with the city’s huge testing scandal...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Hard prison time for cheating on an exam? Really? What do you do when the real crime is the exam itself?

Sparks are flying in Atlanta as public school teachers were convicted of racketeering in connection with the city’s huge testing scandal. Eight of the 10 teachers who were convicted of conspiring to inflate students’ standardized test scores received prison sentences of up to 7 years.

A state investigation had determined that 178 educators, including 38 principals, had participated. Ultimately, thirty-five educators were indicted, with twenty-one pleading guilty and 13 going to trial. Beverly Hall, the former superintendent who was indicted in the scandal, did not go to trial due to illness and recently died of breast cancer.

No good can come from this case, no matter how one looks at it. At a time when students are criminalized for any conduct, however inconsequential, and funneled into a cradle-to-prison pipeline, it is a sign of the times that teachers would face jail time for essentially helping students cheat. This is not to dismiss what these teachers did or minimize the seriousness of their actions. After all, struggling, mostly black and brown students are being cheated when the adults in the classroom inflate the measures of their achievement, cover up any potential problems, and give the impression that everything is alright with the students’ progress. The teachers who would do such a thing should face consequences, such as termination.

But imprisonment? There are people who have taken lives, or have stolen billions of dollars and are not serving a day behind bars. And yet, these teachers who have done wrong are pawns in a larger scam, scapegoats for a testocracy system that hustles public school students and promotes the test ahead of students’ learning. Blame it on President George W. Bush and his No Child Left Behind federal mandate program, which has accelerated the standardized testing frenzy and has eaten public education alive.

According to the Columbia University Office of Work/Life, there are a number of pros associated with standardized testing, such as objectivity, holding teachers and schools accountable, and providing parents with a sense of how their child is performing compared to other students.

However, critics will note a number of cons as well. For example, high-stakes testing creates stress for students and teachers alike. Anxiety-ridden students do not perform well, and teachers are forced to spend their time “teaching to the test” as opposed to developing young minds and critical thinkers. Some critics claim the stakes are too high, as standardized testing wastes instruction time, does not accurately measure learning, has built-in cultural and racial bias, and pressures teachers to place underperforming students in special education or, as in the case of the Atlanta schools, cheat on the test.

In EdWeek, Kelly Gallagher wrote that while children must write in order to learn, multiple choice tests do not measure learning. According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, these multiple choice tests do not measure teacher quality and cannot provide accountability. And yet, the U.S. is the only advanced nation to use them. Countries whose students are high achievers — and score higher on international exams than American students — employ essay writing, research projects, activities and critical thinking, not multiple choice. Sadly, the U.S. values shallow thinking, and our tests encourage mediocrity.

Ultimately, reliance on the test means that low income students, children of color, children with disabilities and those whose native language in not English are placed at a disadvantage. As Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier argues, standardized tests such as the SAT are a reflection of a student’s wealth and little else and are part of a system which produces a specific kind of leadership in society and prohibits the cultivation of diverse leaders. The testocracy, according to Guinier, values perfect test scores as a measure of one’s merit yet ignores values such as character, collaboration and teamwork.

Over half of the public school students in this country are in poverty and in need, and yet society’s answer is more testing. Many of these students are prepared for a pipeline to prison, as opposed to private and prep school kids, whose schools do not rely on standardized testing and instead prepare children for college and produce critical thinkers.

And testing, lest we forget, is a money-making industry with annual revenues of $20 billion to $30 billion. And wealthy interests are pushing “test-and-punish” policies in public education, according to Jesse Hagopian, who wrote in Truthout that “The testocracy is relentlessly working on new methods to reduce students to data points that can be used to rank, punish, and manipulate.”

Operating on the for-profit model, test developers use a “one size fits all” model when one size will not work.  “Employing standardized achievement tests to ascertain educational quality is like measuring temperature with a tablespoon,” wrote W. James Popham for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). “Tablespoons have a different measurement mission than indicating how hot or cold something is. Standardized achievement tests have a different measurement mission than indicating how good or bad a school is. Standardized achievement tests should be used to make the comparative interpretations that they were intended to provide. They should not be used to judge educational quality,” Popham added.

Some critics of standardized testing argue that as testing should serve as one of numerous tools to assess learning, the real purpose of testing in public schools is not to assess learning but to rank students. “Tests have always ranked students into ‘winners’ and ‘losers,’ ‘successes’ and ‘failures,’” Robert Hach said in Salon. Hach believes testing has dumbed down his students for the sake of corporate profits. “The necessity of this was a function of twentieth-century American capitalism, which required that the ‘public’ include enough ‘losers’ at the testing game to work the assembly lines of industry, as well as enough unemployed, would-be workers to threaten the job security of the employed.”

Parents, concerned about their children being labeled by standardized testing — and realizing a hustle when they see it — are deciding to opt out of high-stakes testing for their children. This is a growing national movement encompassing people across the ideological and socioeconomic spectrum.

For example, in Long Island, New York, nearly 65,000 students are opting out of state English Language Arts test, or 43.6 percent of the students in grades three through eight who are eligible for the exam. Statewide, over 156,000 of 1.1 million students — or 14 percent — opted out of the test.

In Philadelphia, the opt-out movement is being fueled by students who are learning English. And in New Jersey, 15 percent of 11th graders would not take their state exams.

Meanwhile, President Bush once asked, “Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?” Standardized testing will not help our children, as it only corrupts the learning process in the public schools. And throwing teachers in prison for cheating is a cheap, cynical attempt to change the subject and shift blame away from the test itself.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove