Atlanta's school cheating scandal: 6 takeaways

The city's public schools have been rocked by revelations of dishonesty on standardized tests. What does this teach us about the education system?

Pressured to meet testing targets, teachers and school officials in Atlanta reportedly cheated on student achievement tests to skew scores.
(Image credit: Simon Jarratt/Corbis)

Last week, a report released by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal detailed widespread cheating on standardized tests throughout the Atlanta school system. Close to 80 percent of the 56 elementary and middle school teachers examined in the report had cheated on yearly student-performance tests. The revelations have sent officials and education advocates reeling, and six senior educators have been stripped of their duties. The former superintendent, Dr. Beverly Hall, has been accused of threatening teachers' jobs if they didn't meet certain achievement standards on these tests. Here, six takeaways from the scandal:

1. We need to manage our expectations

We've got to learn to "be skeptical of suddenly improving test scores," says The Spokesman-Review in an editorial. "Education improvement takes time," and "we need to have the patience to let it happen."

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2. Smaller school districts could help

"Would a system of smaller school districts like the one I grew up in, instead of one large one serving the Atlanta metro area, have been less likely to present the opportunity for widespread cheating on standardized tests?" asks Kris Broughton at Big Think. The Atlanta public school system is a behemoth, and studies have shown that larger schools and larger school districts impede student performance and widen the achievement gap between the affluent and the less affluent.

3. Teachers shouldn't be evaluated solely on test scores

When teachers' job survival depends on student test scores, this is what happens, says Maryln Tillman, an education advocate, as quoted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Teachers, administrators, and school personnel are people, too... and people will do what they need to do to survive."

4. There's no excuse for cheating

There's a simple lesson here: "Integrity matters, honesty matters," says the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, as quoted by The Christian Science Monitor. Teachers have a duty not only to teach, but to serve as ethical models for their students.

5. We shouldn't stop testing, but we need a better system

While this scandal is shocking, "we should resist efforts to halt testing altogether, or to return to a time when school failure could go largely unaddressed," says Saba Bireda at The Root. Standardized testing "can be a useful tool for teachers." It should be used to evaluate schools and teachers, but it shouldn't be the only means of judging them. We just need to shift our "myopic focus on standardized test results" to the bigger picture.

6. This is happening elsewhere, too

Atlanta isn't the only school district to be rocked by a cheating scandal. Just look at Washington, D.C., says John Thompson in The Huffington Post, which sought to "contain" a cheating scandal "by looking the other way." Atlanta's not alone, and it may only be unique in that it "was forced to keep up its culture of denial over a much longer period of time" than other districts.

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