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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Are They Learning?

This opinion piece was carried in the New York Times on July 17 2011.

I find it hard, perhaps inappropriate to even attempt a preface to provide a wider and global context to what is in fact just an Atlanta school system scandal.

Interestingly, this is a pervasive problem, certainly in the developing and especially in Africa. I think as a global collective we have succumbed to the deadly pandemic of test scores as a means of measuring learning.

The tragedy is that in pursuit of high test scores and the allure of admissions into elite colleges, we have ostracized learning from the classroom and banished education from the school.

What is more disconcerting is that parents are playing along. They want grades and not learning. And for the regulators high test scores means that the so-called education system is working and public spending can be justified.

And with those few remarks, here is the New York Times Op-Ed.

A cheating scandal in which scores of teachers and principals in Atlanta's public schools falsified student test results has thrown the system into chaos and made its name synonymous with fraud. This shameful episode has destroyed trust in the schools and made it impossible to determine how much students are learning and whether the system is doing its job.

In a report released this month, state investigators in Georgia found a pattern of "organized and systemic misconduct" that dates to 2001. They identified 178 teachers and principals in 44 of the system's approximately 100 schools involved in cheating on student tests. Even worse, reports of cheating were ignored by top administrators, creating a culture of fear and intimidation that prevented many teachers from speaking out.

Test haters will inevitably blame the standardized testing mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind act for inducing this kind of misconduct. The tests remain a crucial gauge of student performance and an indicator of how much academic progress schools are making. It's the cheats who need to go, not the tests.

To restore integrity to the Atlanta system, which serves mainly impoverished children, state and city officials need to improve test security and make sure that those involved in cheating lose their teaching certifications and never work in classrooms again.

The former schools superintendent Beverly L. Hall, who was widely praised during her 12-year tenure, which ended last month, stood at the center of the scandal. The investigators found that Ms. Hall and her staff had a see-no-evil policy, even though they had received many reports of widespread cheating, including one filed by the Atlanta Federation of Teachers in 2005. Under their administration, whistle-blowers were punished while the cheats went free.

Since the report became public, Atlanta school officials have removed some employees connected with the scandal, and prosecutors could eventually bring charges against educators who may have violated state law. Beyond that, the state education department says that schools that may have received federal grants based on fraudulent test scores could be forced to return the money.

The fraud will cast doubt on the real progress that Atlanta has made on the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card. In the last decade, for example, the city raised its average math scores significantly. The federal tests, however, are not administered or graded by local districts and are virtually impervious to tampering.

Atlanta is not alone in facing testing scandals. Allegations of cheating have erupted in several places, including Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and Los Angeles.

There are several things that states can do. They should protect whistle-blowers so that teachers who report wrongdoing do not have to fear retaliation. They should make it clear that cheats will be stripped of their certification and barred from the profession. In addition, states should create systems in which tests are independently administered.
Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone from Zain Kenya

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