By Eric Garneau
When Superintendent Beverly Hall took over Atlanta Public Schools (APS) in 1999, her presence was mostly welcomed by the district. Hall carried with her a positive reputation garnered in New York and Newark, NJ public school systems. After her first few years in Atlanta, that reputation seemed to be earned; her leadership saw the school district making several key improvements, including in the area of standardized test scores. In 2009, Hall was even named the National Superintendent of the Year.
Yet according to The New York Times, signs of trouble were evident in 2005. In fact, it's believed that test score manipulation began as early as 2001. Reports state that teachers and administrators altering student test scores was a part of life in APS. Faculty members would engage in schemes such as rearranging student seating to ensure the worst pupils got the easiest tests. They also allegedly erased wrong answers and replaced them with correct ones, even going so far as to use transparent answer key print-outs to speed the process along. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) notes that such tactics have so far been confirmed in 44 of 56 schools investigated.
Who's to Blame
This entire plot, it's said, was done with the full knowledge and support of Superintendent Hall's administration. School district investigators say that when confronted with accusations and evidence of tampering, officials refused to be forthcoming, always offering misleading or incorrect information and passing the blame to other APS employees. Any teachers who wished to speak up were told to silence themselves immediately or face repercussions. It seems that this cheating was perpetuated in large part by fear of losing employment, although it might strike one as difficult to claim total innocence for teachers who participated in, according to the AJC, test answer 'changing parties.'
Why it Happened
The AJC reports three key reasons investigators gave that inspired test answer manipulation. Besides faculty fear of consequences for challenging the system, there's the standard allure of the prestige of reporting high test scores. Perhaps the most surprising revelation from the investigators, though, is that under Hall's leadership APS set unrealistic test score goals for itself. In a constant drive to improve faster than was possible, Hall fostered the culture that led to rampant cheating - once faculty manipulated test answers one year to elicit the desired results, the same had to be done the next year to meet the new target goal, and so on.
Who Really Suffers
Of course in any situation like this it's the students themselves that stand to lose the most. False test results could mean that pupils get promoted to grade levels without a basic understanding of the concepts they'll need in that grade. Additionally, because it seems as though they've passed their tests, struggling students who'd otherwise receive additional assistance go unaided. All of this creates an environment where Hall and the other faculty of APS benefit at the expense of the children they're meant to develop.
APS parents, it should be noted, seem to place most of the blame for this scandal on Hall and her fellow administrators, not the individual teachers in the schools. Understandably so, they want to see justice done when it comes to repercussions for those educational professionals who've negatively impacted their children's futures. As of the writing of this article, few of the officials had given any comment on the scandal; The New York Times states that Hall herself left for a Hawaiian vacation the day the scandal broke. No doubt many around the country will be closely watching this once-lauded educator who may be responsible for one of the largest cheating initiatives in public school administration history.
Some educators wonder how useful standardized tests really are.