They’re called “erasure parties” and contrary to what you might guess, they do not involve consuming several cans of FourLoko and a box of matches after a bad breakup. Instead, on weekends during standardized testing season in Atlanta, small groups of teachers get together to erase and correct their students’ wrong answers. In short, they cheat.
Social use of pink gum erasers wasn’t the only form of cheating in the Atlanta Public Schools described in the 800-page investigative report released by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s office last week, but it does sound like the most fun. According to the report, other teachers took more traditional approaches to cheating, such as obtaining test questions in advance or simply standing over their kids’ shoulders and pointing at the right answers. At least 178 cheating teachers and principals at 44 different schools were uncovered, and 82 of the teachers confessed when confronted by investigators.
And the folks who caved all fingered the same culprit when asked why they did it: data. They blamed data-obsessed school superintendent Beverly Hall and her administration for setting “unreasonable improvement goals” and establishing a “no exceptions, no excuses” culture in which teachers and principals who failed to meet state testing targets were named, shamed, and booted.
Education pundits and wonks took up the cry, with lines like this: “Fundamentally, the Atlanta scandal is the logical and predictable result of data-driven reform.” And this: “It’s this idiotic pressure on schools and teachers regarding test results that I think is corrupting not just the test results, but education.”
It’s true that a heavy emphasis on testing can distort what teachers focus on during the days and weeks leading up to the test. But for all the disdain heaped on high-stakes testing, you’d think Atlanta was asking kids to do exotic and useless tasks like execute triple salchows or solve Rubik’s cubes. The tests may not be perfect measures of academic achievement, but it’s hardly outrageous to attempt to measure basic reading comprehension and math skills, particularly for elementary students.
Those “unreasonable testing goals” are being blamed for a culture of cheating, but there hasn’t been as much attention paid to whether those targets really were so outrageous. This is due in part to that fact that in Atlanta, targets were individually tailored for each school and grade level, so there are no easily obtainable pass-fail figures. The system also required lower performing students to show more progress than higher performers.
The examples given as typical in the report are illuminating, however: If 60 percent of last year's fourth graders met expectations in math, the goal for the following year might be 63 percent, the report explains. If anything, the example given in the report is optimistic. National tests find that about half of Atlanta's fourth graders fall below basic reading skills, with less than a quarter of kids testing proficient or above.
Which gets to the fundamental question: Is it reasonable or unreasonable to ask that a majority of the kids in Atlanta be able to read and do math at grade level? In many cases, individual teachers were undoubtedly correct to feel they were being asked to work miracles. This is especially true given that the long legacy of cheating teachers meant they were annually hoisting themselves on their collective petards. Each year’s standards were based on the previous year’s results. A 2 percent improvement in math performance for fourth graders each year is already a tall order, but it’s tougher still if the skills of last years’ fourth graders were mostly fictional, the product of a decade of ever-inflating false scores.
But what is more unreasonable: putting intense pressure on teachers to get kids’ scores up, or continuing to allow Atlanta’s kids to slide by year after year as test scores show that they aren’t learning even basic skills? Underlying the constant push for improvement in Atlanta and elsewhere is the ultimate in perfectly-reasonable-yet-unreasonable goals, the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which demands 100 percent proficiency by 2014.
There’s no denying the pressure on Atlanta’s teachers and principals was intense. The report is studded with stories that would make even Michael Lewis-era Salomon Brothers bond traders ashamed of their wussy hazing tactics. For example, “at Fain Elementary School, the principal forced a teacher to crawl under a table in a faculty meeting because the teacher’s students’ test scores were so low.” Though student performance formally counts for only 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation by her principal, the report notes that in some schools, principals “told teachers that if they could not meet targets...they should find another profession.” Or as one DeKalb county teacher told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Anybody whose job is tied to performance, it is a setup.”
While forced crawling under conference tables isn’t typical, in most professions it wouldn’t be unusual to be told that if you can’t meet your boss’ expectations, you might want to start looking for another gig. But as Michelle Rhee, the former superintendent of D.C. schools (where another cheating scandal may be brewing) said in an interview with Reason in 2009, “in the private sector, they would think it’s completely insane” to base only 25 or 50 percent of an employee’s evaluation on how well he performs his core task.
But rather than facing the music or considering a career in retail, dozens (perhaps hundreds) of Atlanta’s teachers decided to cheat, a choice they presented as inevitable to investigators. The report notes that “targets were implemented...in such a way that teachers and administrators believed that they had to choose between cheating to meet targets or failing to meet targets and losing their jobs.”
In the first chapter of the book that made him famous, Freakonomics, economist Steven D. Levitt describes a study [PDF] he did of cheating in Chicago public schools. He didn’t have the benefit of test papers covered with eraser marks to sift through, but he did have some sophisticated statistical tools to catch unlikely clusters of correct answers. Along with co-author Brian A. Jacob, he estimated that “serious cases of teacher or administrator cheating on standardized tests occur in a minimum of 4-5 percent of elementary school classrooms annually”—which sounds bad, but pales in comparison to the cheating found in nearly 80 percent of the Atlanta schools investigated.
But rather than condemn cheating as the inevitable consequence of testing, the scholars make this no-brainer point: "The obvious benefits of high-stakes tests as a means of providing incentives must...be weighed against the possible distortions that these measures induce. Explicit cheating is merely one form of distortion. Indeed, the kind of cheating we focus on is one that could be greatly reduced at a relatively low cost through the implementation of proper safeguards, such as is done by Educational Testing Service on the SAT or GRE exams."
There are many good (and well-intentioned) teachers trapped in a bad system in Atlanta and in public schools around the country. But sending half your fourth graders on to the next grade without basic skills is inexcusable—unreasonable, even. Cheating is not an inevitable consequence of focusing on data that reveal that fact. Atlanta’s superintendent seems to have been a bad apple, and she was well on her way to spoiling the bunch. But she was right about one thing: Everyone needs to do better. No exceptions, no excuses.