The Evolution of Denial in Atlanta Test-Score Cheating Scandal

Rachel Aviv’s extraordinary New Yorker magazine essay, Wrong Answer, traces the evolution of the Atlanta Public Schools standardized test cheating scandal.  Aviv describes how school administrators, driven by the Adequate Yearly Progress requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, wielded pressure and shame over several years to recalibrate the moral compass of one middle school’s most dedicated teacher.

A researcher at the American Mathematical Society tells Aviv about Campbell’s Law, “a principle that describes the risks of using a single indicator to measure complex social phenomena: the greater the value placed on a quantitative measure, like test scores, the more likely it is that the people using it and the process it measures will be corrupted.”  The principle sounds abstract, but what happened to the teachers at Parks Middle School was anything but dry.  Little by little, year after year, more and more teachers got involved; administrators condoned the cheating or looked the other way; and everybody celebrated the miraculous scores despite that they were utterly improbable.

Despite that Atlanta’s superintendent Beverly Hall offered cash awards to the staff at schools where scores continued to rise, Aviv’s story is not about the power of prizes and money.  Damany Lewis, a middle school math teacher and the protagonist of Aviv’s story, wants desperately to keep his job precisely because he is so dedicated to serving students whose poverty is so severe that he collects their clothes to wash when they have no other options.  He finds himself coaching a host of athletic teams along with the chess club as he devotes his life to trying to help his students surmount the obstacles in their lives.

Our federal testing law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), dominates the lives of Atlanta’s educators, from teacher to principal to school administrator.  At the time of this story—from 2006-2010, before the federal government began offering NCLB waivers from the law’s onerous requirement of utopian, ever growing test scores—in order to make what was called Adequate Yearly Progress, schools had to raise their cumulative test scores higher and higher every year.  NCLB is a trap for the middle school where Lewis teaches in two primary ways.  His students arrive at his math classes unable to do the work their elementary school test scores say they are capable of; after all, the elementary schools have already been cheating on test scores well before Aviv’s students arrive in his middle school classes.  And then, once the middle school teachers succumb to temptation and begin erasing and correcting test score answers, they are ensnared into continuing the practice into the future.  There is no going back because the school must produce even higher scores the next year and the next.

Aviv describes the teachers’ dilemma as Lewis understands it: “At happy-hour drinks, he and other teachers complained that the legislators who wrote No Child Left Behind must never have been near a school like Parks.  He felt as if he and his colleagues were part of a nationwide ‘biological experiment’ in which the variables—the fact that so many children were hungry and transient and witnessing violence—hadn’t been controlled.”

Aviv sums up by explaining what she was told in an interview by noted educational researcher David Berliner, that NCLB expected teachers to compensate for factors outside their control: “The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.”

I urge you to read Aviv’s powerful article, for it is not only about the culture of denial across Atlanta’s public schools during the reign of Superintendent Beverly Hall.  It is also about our broader cultural blindness to poverty and denial of its consequences for children in an increasingly unequal society.