The twisted incentives behind the Atlanta Public Schools cheating case
What one scandal says about the American education system
This month, verdicts were handed down in one of the largest standardized test cheating scandals in a public school system to date. Eleven out of twelve defendants ranging from test administrators to teachers and principals in the Atlanta Public Schools system were convicted for racketeering, making false statements, and other crimes. An investigation led by former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers discovered that more than 250,000 wrong answers were changed in thousands of students’ standardized tests since 2001. Yet as staggering as the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal seems to be, perhaps the real crime here lies in high-stakes standardized testing, which is blindly mandated across the board without attention to the unique contexts surrounding individual school districts.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking quantitative measures of the effectiveness of our education system, as legislative initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top attempt to do. After all, educational benchmarks could help the government identify schools in need of resources that would better students’ education. But cheating is bound to occur when those same standardized tests become a major arbiter of high-stakes decisions like grade promotion, the amount of state funding, and the hiring and firing of teachers.
Relying on test scores alone to make these decisions downplays the effort put in by students and teachers alike, as well as the complex social and economic factors that underlie students’ education. In doing so, high-stakes standardized testing sidesteps the root causes of underprivileged districts’ difficulties in meeting the standards set in place. Without addressing deeper problems first, asking for better scores out of these districts and punishing them by removing funding or closing their operations if they fail to deliver is a shortsighted way of pressuring students, teachers, and school administrators into meeting unrealistic expectations.
Perhaps the biggest underlying flaw of our education system lies in school funding mechanisms that perpetuate the disadvantages that underprivileged communities face. For most school districts, the vast majority of funding is derived from local property taxes. In particular, roughly 76 percent of the funding in the Atlanta Public School system’s 2011-2012 budget came from local property taxes, compared to 23 percent and 2 percent from state and federal sources, respectively. When poorer districts derive most of their revenue from already diminished local funding sources, it is no wonder that a cycle of disadvantage is reinforced. The kind of high-stakes standardized testing that closes schools and puts teachers out of work when standards aren’t met often casts this kind of context to the wayside. And, in doing so, the legislative initiatives that have created this new norm have transformed tests that should be used to gauge progress and need for support into additional sources of pressure for already-challenged districts.
So going forward, how should we fairly measure the progress of our school districts and keep what is often a locally nuanced context in mind? Perhaps means for improvement lie not in the data we already have, but rather in the data we don’t have. Anya Kamenetz, author of The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing — But You Don’t Have To Be, suggests a big data approach for evaluating school districts’ progress as one possibility. Considering test scores amidst the background of other metrics like the local poverty rate, graduation rates, and the amount a school spends per capita on students may provide better insight into the progress made by students, teachers, and school administrators given the unique socioeconomic position of a district. Solutions like these should be the future for evaluating the American education system in a fair, realistic light.
Looking back at the Atlanta Public Schools scandal, the district’s local challenges merged with the unrealistic expectations of high-stakes standardized testing. Together these forces created perverse incentives that drove the district to commit massive test fraud. Ultimately, the systematic dismissal of context made all the difference in the Atlanta Public Schools case. Acknowledging that locally nuanced context should drive the future of education policy.