Kind of Red

July 21, 2011

Standard Inequality

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 12:41 pm

Standardized testing, Test, Scantron, Standards based reform, High stakes testing

“[I]t remains to be seen, no matter how deep this thing goes, whether the soul of Atlanta has really been stirred, whether or not Atlanta will recognize that it is facing a genuine crisis of character, character that is decaying because of fear, intimidation and retaliation.”

-Khaatim Sherrer El (Former Atlanta Public School System Board Chairman)

Roughly two weeks ago, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal announced what many familiar with the Atlanta Public School System had long feared, rampant cheating inflated standardized test scores in the Atlanta Public School System dating as far back as 2001.  An investigation, led by former Attorney General Mike Bowers and former Dekalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson, interviewed more than 2,000 people and reviewed more than 800,00 documents.  The investigation implicated 178 educators, principals and teachers alike (all of whom pled the Fifth Amendment), and revealed a “culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence infected the school system, and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct.”  Eighty-two additional educators confessed to participating in various forms of cheating, including erasing wrong answers on students’ multiple choice exams and replacing them with correct answers.  The investigation further revealed how school officials ignored warning dating back to 2005 and also that they provided false statements to cover up wrongdoing.

Former School Board Chairman, Khaatim Sherrer El, warned the city for more than a year that its “political power elite and downtown business community” protected the district’s then-Superintendent Beverly Hall to conceal the cheating epidemic.  When a state investigation confirmed his deep suspicions, he remarked, “I take no solace in knowing my disbeliefs have been confirmed by the governor’s report.”  Rather, he asked piercing questions during a press conference slightly before abruptly announcing his resignation, “Why was this cheating scandal so exclusively pronounced for some children and not others, splitting sharply along racial lines, in its mistreatment of the poor and disenfranchised?” he asked.  No answers emerged, yet one thing remains certain, the scandal will lead to massive changes in the Atlanta Public School System (at the time of this writing, interim Atlanta Public Schools interim Superintendent Erroll Davis has replaced four area superintendents and two principals).

Recent reporting has further indicated that the cheating that has rocked the Atlanta Public School System might have wider ranging implications.  State investigators have begun initial reviews of “suspicious erasures” found on test answer sheets in 191 schools in thirty-five Georgia districts (fifty-eight of which were Atlanta schools).  Similarly, a three-year state investigation has discovered a high percentage of erasure marks on standardized tests at some New Jersey public schools, which has raised the possibility of cheating to boost scores.  Similar reports have emerged from Texas, and anecdotal evidence I have encountered suggest the list of implicated school systems will only grow as more information becomes public.

Public Education Director of the National Center of Fair & Open Testing, Robert Shaeffer, recently noted how the number of “confirmed reports of score manipulation has exploded,” and subsequently concluded the pressure placed on teachers by policies emphasizing standardized test scores (e.g. No Child Let Behind) “foster an environment ripe for cheating.” The investigative report’s summary from Georgia drew similar conclusions; “Cheating was caused by a number of factors but primarily by the pressure to meet targets in the data-driven environment.”  Suffice to say, No Child Left Behind, and other standards-based reform (e.g. Race to the Top) fail to meet their lofty goals and yield a host of unexpected consequences.

In arguably its most important decision of the past century, the Supreme Court in Brown famously stated, “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”[1] Brown introduced new notions of equal educational opportunity and established important goals in educational equity as those to be adopted by federal, state and local governments.[2] More than fifty years later, tremendous deficits in the academic performance of most poor and minority students amounts to a diminished “opportunity of an education” for millions of students nationwide,[3] and represents the most pressing issue in American education today.[4] Scores of advocates and observers have offered proposed remedies to reform education in failing schools,[5] and presently most policymakers have almost unanimously agreed upon the implementation of some form of high-stakes standardized testing—standards-based reform—as the desired means to facilitate the much needed improvement in America’s underperforming schools.[6]

NCLB, No Child Left Behind, standards-based reform, high stakes testingStandards-based reforms, which have become the hallmark of educational reform in the modern era,[7] revolve around the fundamental belief that “all children can learn.”[8]The Federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 is the capstone in this education reform initiative, and to date remains unprecedented in the depth of its stated commitment to ensuring students across the nation meet stringent academic proficiency standards.[9] Its mandates become all the more important when noting the considerable gap in the current “academic function levels of most poor and minority students.”[10]The Act embarks on the ambitious journey of narrowing that gap and decrees all children must “meet or exceed the State’s proficient level of academic achievement . . .[on] challenging academic content standards and challenging student academic achievement standards,” by 2014.[11]

While notable in its ambitions, NCLB has fallen short of such an arduous task.[12]  NCLB relies too heavily on flawed high-stakes standardized testing models and quantitative measures, and in so doing, it masks a “ceiling as a floor.”[13]  Notably standards-based reform fail to address serious impediments to learning, including “the need for improved instructional opportunities in the classroom, health of students, nutrition, housing, family support and scores of other out-of-school factors.”[14] The Act also creates extensive demands on the states while failing to provide adequate funding to meet these new federal mandates,[15] which in turn continues the ironic reality that the “educational finance systems in most states” provide less resources to students with the greatest demonstrated need.[16] NCLB also inadvertently creates an atmosphere that encourages states to lower their academic standards, promotes school segregation and discourages talented instructors from accepting positions in challenging classrooms—all incentives that stand in direct opposition to the Act’s stated goals.[17]  Instead it reveals how the accelerated pace to achieve goals based on faulty measures tend to yield faulty results.  Unfortunately, the education of millions of children was compromised for us to relearn that lesson.


[1] 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954) (also stating “Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”).

[2] Michael A. Rebell, Poverty, “Meaningful” Educational Opportunity, and the Necessary Role of the Courts, 85 N.C. L. Rev. 1467, 1469 (2007).

[3] Id. at 1467.

[4]Anita F. Hill, A History of Hollow Promises: How Choice Jurisprudence Fails to Achieve Educational Equality, 12 Mich. J. Race & L. 107 (2006).

[5] Id. at 108 Accord Funderstanding.com, http://www.funderstanding.com/education_reform.cfm (last visited May. 1, 2008).

[6] Benjamin Michael Superfine, At the Intersection of Law and Psychometrics: Explaining the Validity Clause of No Child Left Behind, 33 J.L. & Educ. 475, 476 (2004).

[7] 85 N.C. L. Rev. at 1467. (stating over the past decade forty-nine of the fifty states have adopted standards-based reforms)

[8] Id. at 1467-68 (quoting N.Y. State Bd. of Regents, All Children Can Learn: A Plan for Reform of State Aid to Schools 1 (1993), which says, “All children can learn; and we can change our system of public elementary, middle, and secondary education to ensure that all children do learn at world-class levels.”).

[9] Id. at 1467.  Accord Charles R. Lawrence III, Who is the Child Left Behind?: The Racial Meaning of the New School Reform, 39 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 699, 702 (2006) (stating NCLB is an expansive statute that contains over 750 pages of law and 1500 pages of regulation and that the table of contents alone is 29 pages).

[10] Id. at 1468.

[11] No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, §101, 115 Stat. 1425, 1444-45, 1448 (2002) (codified at 20 U.S.C. §6311 (2000 & Supp. II 2002)).

[12] 39 Suffolk U. L. Rev. at 700.

[13] The phrase “[masking] a ceiling as a floor” is attributed to Nicholas L. Townsend, Framing a Ceiling as a Floor: The Changing Definition of Learning Disabilities and the Conflicting Trends in Legislation Affecting Learning Disabled, 40 Creighton L. Rev. 229 (2007).

[14] 85 N.C. L. Rev. at 1469. (advocating for a comprehensive approach to address these impediments to learning)

[15] Gina Austin, Leaving Federalism Behind: How No Child Left Behind Usurps States’ Rights, 27 T. Jefferson L. Rev. 337, 338 (2005).

[16] 85 N.C. L. Rev. at 1469.

[17] James E. Ryan, The Perverse Incentives of the No Child Left Behind Act, 79 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 932 (2004).

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