One day after nine educators were sentenced to prison in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, standardized testing began across the state of Georgia.
I am a graduate of the Atlanta Public Schools. I am also an APS middle school teacher. During test time, I silently administer exams to students for hours at a time. In that silence, all you can do is think. I think about educators sitting in jail cells because they changed students’ answers on these very tests. I think about my year spent trying not to teach to a test while simultaneously knowing I had to cover everything that would be on the test. I think about the mother who told me that her son was so worried about the test that he scratched his face until it bled.
I also can’t help but think about the conversation that’s not being held. What we are talking about is the educators’ sentencing. What we’re not talking about is the massive and aggressive standardized testing culture within which the educators functioned.
Amidst the national media maelstrom surrounding the case, the most common argument has been that as a result of their cheating, the educators harmed the children. Judge Baxter said, “I think there were hundreds, thousands of children who were harmed in this city…This was not a victimless crime.”
Yet the idea that purity in a massive testing regime will ensure quality education and success for all children is simply untrue. Quality education comes when we fund our schools, train our teachers, and implement teaching methods that instill a passion for learning. The high-stakes testing model directly counters these very educational methods that we know work best.
Teachers do not have enough time to cover and practice new concepts, even when our students clearly don’t understand the material. We are forced to push forward to make sure we cover every standard before test time, at any cost. The best unit I taught this year was on South African apartheid. We spent three weeks analyzing historical documents, photographs, and conducting interactive activities. The deeper we dug, the more they wanted to learn. I watched my students become passionate and enthusiastic about history and learning. They still talk about that unit, six months later. And yet, weeks on apartheid meant less time to cover other required material, less time to prepare them for the test. Teaching my students in an effective manner that inspired and awakened them to history will most likely hurt their test scores.
As the year progressed, we rushed to cover everything mandated by the state of Georgia. In order to do this, I was unable to replicate the very teaching style that made the apartheid unit so effective – in depth, prolonged study. I am required to teach too much in too little time so students can “pass” the test, which results in teaching a lot of things not very well. In public schools across America, including in my own classroom, teachers are consciously implementing teaching techniques that we know do not work in the long run.
Within a high-stakes testing culture, it doesn’t matter what level the kids began the school year. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been off their medication for weeks because a mother lost her job. It doesn’t matter if they are homeless, or don’t have a parent at home to help them with homework. It doesn’t matter how hard they’ve tried throughout the year; even all the progress they’ve made doesn’t matter. Their passions, their creativity, their imaginations – all meaningless. The only thing that counts is a test score.
Good schools consider the whole child, not just her or his performance on a single test. At my school, we do value test scores. But we also value the entirety of students’ work through the year, their content knowledge, and their social and-emotional needs. We know that when a student is so terrified about standardized tests that she vomits on her exam, she’s probably not going to accurately demonstrate her skills.
Was the purpose of this legal ordeal to punish the educators whose lives had already been ruined? Was the purpose to deter other teachers when, in fact, the shortest jail sentence would have accomplished that? Believe me, the message was sent loud and clear, long before the criminal prosecution was even initiated. But none of these developments help children.
In fact, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, Georgia has cut the education budget over $8.3 billion since 2003. In 2002 we were 26th in the nation in spending per student and by 2012 we were 35th. And at the same time, the rate of low-income students rapidly climbed. The percentage of low-income students rose from 44.2% in 2002 to 62.4% in 2015. Instead of providing these students the support and smaller class sizes they need, budget cuts require schools to do the exact opposite while still expecting them to meet testing benchmarks.
In other words, the very interventions needed to give children a fighting chance are being slashed from beneath them. Isn’t that the true crime?