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Atlanta's School Scandal Isn't Local

How education reform's "no excuses" motto causes cheating

Last Friday, erstwhile all-star Atlanta Schools superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 Atlanta administrators, principals, teachers and other staff were indicted on multiple counts, including conspiracy charges under a RICO statute often used to prosecute organized crime figures and drug dealers. The indictment lays out the conspiracy in lurid detail: Teachers gathered in a locked windowless room to pencil in the right standardized test bubbles and erase the wrong ones, hoping to win bonuses for high marks and living in fear that poor scores would cost them their jobs. One principal even wore gloves when handling the tampered tests so that she would not leave fingerprints behind. In all, 43 Atlanta elementary and middle schools were found to have statistically improbable erasure patterns in at least one-quarter of their classrooms. Dozens of staff have made confessions to law enforcement.

In the prosecution’s disciplined prose, Atlanta's cheating conspiracy reads like something of a textbook case of municipal-level corruption. But what the indictment vividly describes is far more troubling, the inevitable outcome of a test-score obsession imposed by America's self-described "school reform" regime: harried educators teaching, and now cheating, to the test. 

No Child Left Behind, passed in 2002, raised the stakes of standardized tests. Whether students make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) quickly became a deciding factor in the decision to label a school a success or a failure, the subject of countless hours of preparation and even pep rallies, and, ultimately, the measure by which "failed" schools were targeted for closure or conversion to private charter management. NCLB made a point of taking the "no excuses" standard to its most illogical point of absurdity, requiring that all students nationwide—100 percent of them—be proficient in reading and math by 2014. 

"No excuses" is, in fact, the sacred motto of most high-profile school reformers, from Education Secretary Arne Duncan to former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who says that "you can never, ever, ever let that [poverty] be an excuse for the kids not achieving at the highest levels." The national "no excuses" standard led Atlanta's improbable test score gains to be celebrated instead of questioned. In 2009, the School Superintendents Association named Hall National Superintendent of the Year, and Executive Director Dan Domenech hailed her for turning "Atlanta into a model of urban school reform."

And yet, the "no excuses" policy nostrum embraced by Washington Republicans and Democrats have in Atlanta become the stuff of criminal indictments. "The message from Beverly Hall was clear: there were to be no exceptions and no excuses for failure to meet targets," the Atlanta indictment reads at one point. At another: "APS principals and teachers were frequently told by Beverly Hall and her subordinates that excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated."

Duncan called the Atlanta scandal a "cultural problem," and a "very isolated" incident that can be fixed through "better test security." But similar cheating has cropped up in 37 states, according to the advocacy group FairTest, including the cities of Houston, New York, and Detroit. In Philadelphia, one in five district schools has been investigated for cheating, and former El Paso Superintendent Lorenzo García is now in prison, convicted after forcing low-performing students out the school house door to boost scores. The same in Washington, DC during the tenure of Michelle Rhee, who refused to speak to the USA Today reporters who uncovered potential cheating. Rhee now leads nationwide reform lobby StudentsFirst, bankrolled by hedge fund managers and powerful foundations. The group pushes for test scores to play a greater role in teacher evaluation and also to eliminate tenure, without which teachers will be all the more terrified of being judged test score-rendered failures.

The victims of standardized test obsession are many: Atlanta students deprived of additional funding and assistance their low performance merited; the arts, science, music, history and even recess and physical education cut to make time for reading and math as test pressure rises and funding drops; and, perhaps most profoundly, a political debate that has sidelined a discussion about the poverty, segregation, and unequal funding that are the most serious obstacles facing low-income, disproportionately African-American and Latino, students.

The reform response to cheating is tone-deaf: more money, including to the for-profit education companies that already handsomely profit from tests and test prep materials, to police teachers. "The tests were never designed to make these decisions about which schools should survive, or which kids should be promoted, or which teachers should be fired," Linda Darling-Hammond, who headed Obama's education policy transition team, told me. "The behaviors are inexcusable on their face. But the implications of what they're doing should be causing a much greater red flag about the testing system than simply battening down the hatches on security."

Criticism of the high-stakes testing regime is sprouting up in districts nationwide. In Seattle, teachers staged a high-profile standardized test boycott, and students have protested in Portland and Providence. In Texas, more than 500 school boards have passed resolutions criticizing standardized tests' high stakes, and so have major districts in Florida. In 2012, Chicago teachers struck against the mandate to teach to the test and against the campaign to privatize public education for which poor test scores serve as pretext. Today, they are, like counterparts in Philadelphia and other cities, fighting efforts to close dozens of "failed" (most black and poor) schools.

Arne Duncan's hope that Atlanta's standardized test cheating scandal remains "very isolated" has already proven hopeless.

Daniel Denvir is a reporter at Philadelphia City Paper and a frequent contributor to Salon, The Guardian and VICE. Follow him at @DanielDenvir.