Daniel Koretz: More Detail from “The Testing Charade” on Cheating Scandal in Atlanta

Back in 2015, I watched when part of the trial of the Atlanta school teachers—accused of erasing and correcting their students’ test scores—was televised on C-Span (see here and here). And two weeks ago I read Daniel Koretz’s new book, The Testing Charade, a book about what happens when high stakes punishments are attached to any social indicator. I read Koretz’s book pretty much without emotion or judgment—as an academic exercise to understand his argument against the high stakes that policy makers have used as a threat to drive teachers to work harder and raise test scores faster. I didn’t focus on the sections about the cheating scandals.  After all, I imagined, the scandals have just become a part of history.

Then on Wednesday evening, I watched Lisa Stark’s report for the PBS NewsHour about the 9 Atlanta school teachers and principals who are appealing their criminal convictions to clear their names and avoid stints in prison for participating in what is said to have been a 44-school cheating scandal driven by Superintendent Beverly Hall, who won awards when test scores rose miraculously quickly in Atlanta’s schools. Hall died before her own involvement could be adjudicated.

Daniel Koretz, the Harvard professor whose new book explores the Atlanta cheating scandal (among cheating scandals in Washington, D.C, Pennsylvania and many other places) as among the widespread consequences of our test-and-punish regime of school reform, spoke briefly in Lisa Stark’s report. In his book he attributes the problem to what social scientists call Campbell’s Law. Here is Koretz’s definition: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” (p. 38)

Koretz explores the issue far more deeply in his new book than he did in Wednesday night’s short clip for the NewsHour. My feeling two years ago that the Atlanta educators’ criminal convictions were unfair and what, as I watched the PBS report, I recognized as my feeling of relief two weeks ago when I read Koretz’s book—that an expert scholar confirmed my own sense of injustice in Atlanta—sent me back again yesterday to Koretz’s book.  Here is some of what he didn’t have time to say in Wednesday’s report for PBS.

“One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (pp. 129-130) Koretz continues: “(T)his decision backfired. The result was, in many cases, unrealistic expectations that teachers simply couldn’t meet by any legitimate means.” (p. 134)

In Atlanta, Koretz describes the situation at Parks Middle School, as it was portrayed by Rachel Aviv in a New Yorker profile of the Atlanta cheating scandal.  Koretz explains: “This is the school where Damany Lewis and Christopher Waller worked. Aviv documented the way in which Waller choreographed an increasingly large and well-organized cheating ring… Why did Lewis and others do this  At least in Lewis’s case, it was not because he was comfortable cheating. Quite the contrary…  Then why? In a nutshell, because their only other choice was to fail—not when compared with reasonable goals but when held to Hall’s and NCLB’s entirely arbitrary targets. Parks is located in a terribly depressed neighborhood. Half the homes are vacant. Students call the neighborhood ‘Jack City’ because of all the armed robberies. Very few of the students come from homes with two parents. Aviv reported that some students came to school in filthy clothing and that Lewis told students to drop dirty laundry in the back of his truck so that he could wash clothes for them. Some of the parents were dysfunctional because of drug use. During the years leading up to the cheating scandal, Parks had made real progress. A new principal renovated the school and worked on both refocusing students on academics and building a sense of community. Using funds that Hall’s administration had obtained, the school implemented after-school and tutoring programs. However, this simply wasn’t enough, given how fast scores had to rise to meet Hall’s demands. Lewis told Aviv that he had pushed his students harder than they had ever been pushed and that he was ‘not willing to let the state slap them in the face and say they’re failures.'” (pp. 77-78)

Besides leaving 9 Atlanta teachers and principals with criminal convictions, what has been the ultimate outcome of all this test-and-punish for society as a whole including our children? “It’s no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge. Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale. Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents. Cheating has become widespread. The public has been deceived into thinking that achievement has dramatically improved and that achievement gaps have narrowed. Many students are subjected to severe stress… Educators have been evaluated in misleading and in some cases utterly absurd ways. Careers have been disrupted and in some cases ended. Educators including prominent administrators, have been indicted and even imprisoned. The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary-school math that don’t persist until graduation.” (p. 191)

Koretz concludes: “Reformers may take umbrage and say that they certainly didn’t demand that teachers cheat. They didn’t, although in fact many policy makers actively encouraged bad test prep that produced fraudulent gins. What they did demand was unrelenting and often very large gains that many teachers couldn’t produce through better instruction, and they left them with inadequate supports as they struggled to meet these often unrealistic targets. They gave many educators the choice… fail, cut corners, or cheat—and many chose not to fail.” (p. 244)