Stepping toward truth
The Editorial Board’s opinion
Great entities sometimes face hard tests. The kind that determine whether they rise to deep challenges. Or stumble into that slide called decline.
Metro Atlanta will enter such a moment Monday as the long-in-coming trial of 12 Atlanta Public Schools educators begins in a Fulton County courtroom.
A sworn jury will determine the legal outcome. No matter the verdict, a watching nation and world will judge Atlanta by what we do next.
Even as the names of defendants and schools quickly dart behind memory’s dark veil after the trial, the fundamental, stubborn issue will remain of just how to educate the most at-risk of children in our midst. Among the first questions on this national exam must be how to appropriately, accurately and truthfully measure students’ educational progress over time. The current national fetish over high-stakes standardized testing has fallen well short in this regard.
The astounding accusations of cheating at APS and elsewhere around Georgia and the U.S. shows that simplistic, haphazard solutions too often yield unacceptable results. That is the simple, yet powerful conclusion resulting from the long community process that began when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began its reporting in 2008 on statistical irregularities around CRCT testing at some schools in APS and other districts.
The aftermath shows there are no easy, rapid answers to sustainably improving educational achievement. Which is not to say there are no answers. We don’t believe that. No one can who believes in Atlanta’s future.
Getting to better answers requires honestly staring down the full, painful truth of where APS and, by inference, American public education, went astray.
The criminal trial can provide a necessary lens through which to examine this question.
After all of the denials and obfuscation, if not outright lies, Atlanta needs to know as much about what really happened as the law can allow.
That respected, well-educated professionals believed they had no other choice but to cheat says something profoundly sad about the environment in which they worked and the tenor of our test-driven age. This horribly toxic mix of unrealistic, unrelenting demands and misguided metrics overpowered human frailty for some educators. And that triggered tragic results for students and careers alike, while also overshadowing or tarnishing legitimate educational progress at APS.
Accepting all of that can take us into a low, humbling place.
That may be the best place to face truth.
At best, too many people at too many levels saw only what they wanted to see and acted on what they desperately wanted to believe at APS.
At worst, well, draw your own, gut-level conclusions.
The actual truth may rest most anywhere along that continuum. Determining all that requires that this criminal trial play out in a public courtroom.
Ideally, former APS Superintendent Beverly Hall would have stood trial alongside her former subordinates. The malady of major illness intervened. Whether Hall is ever tried, at this point, seems within only God’s knowledge and humankind’s guess.
Yet, justice should continue onward. Atlanta and its children deserve that.
For not seeing, or refusing to see what were significant problems at best, and stunning failures at worst, came with a terrible price. Struggling kids did not get needed help – at least not in a timely fashion.
No Child Left Behind somehow became No Excuses At Any Time within yesterday’s APS. And that view stubbornly held, no matter the disruptive woes that troubled students dragged into classrooms each day.
Admittedly, viewing a bright and flashy skyrocket of success is much more exciting than watching a slow slog upward toward that same place. Our impatient society likes easy, 1, 2, 3, “Fix It Now” solutions. Such can fuel smoke and mirrors which obscure seemingly intractable societal problems that have tenaciously endured through the Great Society and Reagan Revolution alike. Poverty. Hunger. Ignorance. Substance abuse. Parents who are absent in body, mind or some percentage of both. All impede classroom performance each day at too many schools.
Yet, it will prove easier and cheaper in the long run to adequately educate a child than to fix, incarcerate or otherwise subsidize dysfunctional adults. APS spends nearly $14,000 a year on each student. It costs $18,000 annually to keep one inmate in Georgia’s prisons.
Yes, personal responsibility from a young age and an appreciation for education’s transformative power are necessities. But who will teach those when parents don’t?
Instilling such values must somehow be a part of education at schools that expect to overcome poverty and turn out motivated students who are well-prepared for productive life and citizenship.
That should be a big-picture metric embraced by both Atlanta and our broader community.
And we must find a better way of testing, too. A more honest and rigorous way to assess our children’s academic progress. Only then can teachers productively teach and children truly learn.
To do otherwise is to cheat our neediest kids. And shortchange Atlanta’s future and present in the process.
Methodically seeing through to an appropriate end the long examination of what went wrong at APS and acting smartly on the answers will let Atlanta begin to climb upward from its low place.
A city with ambitions as great as ours can do with no less. If we accept that, and begin our long ascent, greater Atlanta can reach new, unparalleled heights — as we’ve done many times before.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.
Tests should be effective, not toxic
By Lily Eskelsen Garcia
As educators, we believe in good testing. Most teachers are neither strangers to, nor enemies of, tests. But great teachers know the difference between tests that help students and tests that harm students. Tests are not meant to be implements to torture and punish students. Instead, tests should be designed to help teachers evaluate individual students and tailor lessons to meet their learning needs.
This is important because of what is happening in our schools today with high-stakes standardized tests flies in the face of what is best for our students. This is what I call “toxic testing.” Too often and in too many places, we have turned the time-tested practice of teach, learn, and test into a system of test, blame, and punish. That’s not right, it’s not education, and it’s not good for our students.
As a teacher, I never gave my students the test and the grade before I taught the lesson. It just doesn’t work that way. And I always tested the students on the material they had learned — not some other random lesson. But this year and next, many states will begin administering Common Core-aligned standardized tests before our students have had the opportunity to actually learn Common Core-aligned material. Other states are going to keep giving the old tests — which have nothing to do with the Common Core standards their teachers were asked to teach. Still others will give old tests and new tests side-by-side — which sounds a whole lot like torture. If we believe these tests are so important, let’s make sure we are measuring what matters.
Students are spending an increasing portion of their class time preparing for and taking these unaligned tests. We are stealing so much learning time from our kids, and their parents are going to have to start asking, “What were you tested on in school today?” instead of, “What did you learn in school today?” Students are so busy taking tests that they don’t have time to learn !
The scary part is that we have attached high-stakes consequences to these insane tests. I’m not against measurement and accountability. But I always want to know that we are measuring and holding ourselves accountable for things that matter. That’s not what is happening . Instead of using tests to better direct resources to schools and guide instruction , we are using these tests to punish schools, teachers, students, and school districts. This simply isn’t right. It is toxic.
As educators, we know that this amount of testing — and the serious consequences attached — is toxic for our students. As they enter adulthood , our students will need to have good writing, math, creative problem-solving and critical thinking skills. But I doubt they will spend up to 30 percent of their time filling in bubbles on a toxic test.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia is president-elect of The National Education Association.
A sad scandal that should shame us all
By Peter Smagorinsky
As an aspiring teacher, I spoke with many teachers about their work.
A history teacher told me something that had a great impact on my thinking. As his colleagues scurried to create multiple-choice exams , he seemed remarkably at ease. He said his calm came from how he assessed his students: “I make exams,” he said, “that kids can’t cheat on.”
While his colleagues were prowling to prevent kids from copying correct answers, passing them from class to class, and doing all manner of preparation except studying, he asked very different kinds of questions of his kids. They were open-ended and required personal reflection, such that copying not only was not feasible, it denied his students the opportunity to invest their historical studies with their own perspective.
This approach gave his classes a very different environment, especially in history, where inquiry and thoughtfulness are too often sacrificed, replaced by temporary memorization of the picayune: the dates, names, battles, and other information that led me as a youth to think that history was boring — an attitude I’ve abandoned as an adult who has immersed himself in reading histories produced by writers who make distant eras come alive in my imagination.
I make this point because the Atlanta cheating scandal is back in the headlines, now embarrassing APS at a new level as additional details come out in courts . Instead of teachers concerned that kids will cheat on tests that claim to measure the impact of teachers and administrators on kids’ learning, it’s the adults in the building whose cheating has come into focus.
I don’t know any teachers who got into teaching in order to participate in what the AJC has called the “massive APS racketeering case.” Rather, teachers consistently state they wanted to teach to make a difference in kids’ lives. Some, like the history teachers I mentioned , interpret this mission as requiring them to learn the facts of their discipline. But at least their exams are aligned with the curriculum they have taught.
The culture of accountability that Superintendent Beverly Hall imposed pressured school personnel to engage in blatantly unethical practices to create the appearance of learning. This was necessary because her brutal testing regime used standardized test scores as a proxy for learning, and forced teachers who might have taught in more open-ended ways to conform to rote teaching to these tests, lest the teacher assessment system identify them as incompetent.
The APS cheating scandal is more than an ethical disgrace. It is a tragedy of teaching and learning, as those teachers who challenge kids to inquire into complex questions must knowingly make a mockery of their life’s work in order to meet a false standard of effectiveness.
Peter Smagorinsky is distinguished research professor of English Education at UGA.