Widespread cheating on 2009 standardized tests in Atlanta Public Schools — despite “significant and clear” warnings — harmed thousands of students and resulted primarily from “pressure to meet targets” in a data-driven school system, according to results of an investigation released Tuesday.
Of the 56 schools that were examined, cheating was discovered in 44 of them — that’s more than 78 percent — and 178 teachers and principals were found to have cheated on standardized tests, according to a statement released by Gov. Nathan Deal and first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Eighty-two confessed, while half a dozen others pled the Fifth Amendment, which is an implied admission of wrongdoing under civil law.
It used to be that when you thought about cheating in schools, students were the likely culprits. But now, with high-stakes testing putting school funding and jobs on the line, it's administrators and teachers who cheat. And with numbers like those in Atlanta, there's no blaming this on a few bad apples.
Campbell’s Law states that incentives corrupt. In other words, the more punishments and rewards—such as merit pay—are associated with the results of any given test, the more likely it is that the test’s results will be rendered meaningless, either through outright cheating or through teaching to the test in a way that narrows the curriculum and renders real learning obsolete.
In the era of No Child Left Behind, Campbell’s Law has proved true again and again.
Proponents of so-called "reform" like to blame teachers' unions for everything bad that happens in schools, but with cheating scandals popping up across the country, including in a number of decidedly non-union districts, it's becoming clear that that's not the case. In fact, although Atlanta teachers have no collective bargaining rights, some of them belong to the American Federation of Teachers, and it was the local AFT chapter that first reported cheating to the district superintendent.
Rather, it's becoming inescapable that the tests, and the stakes attached to them, are the issue. No rational person can look at cheating this widespread and decide its existence is about the individuals, however blameworthy their behavior may be.