The test for teachers – mastering their fears

The Atlanta teacher scandal isn’t a testing problem, it’s an issue of integrity and honesty.

School's out for the summer, but school reform is suddenly heating up like a Georgia peanut farm in July.

A scorching July 5 report released by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal revealed that almost 80 percent of Atlanta’s elementary and middle schools showed signs of cheating by teachers on statewide-mandated performance tests, called the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. Teachers have admitted to changing test papers to improve scores in their schools. At least six top educators in the Atlanta system have been asked to step down by interim school superintendent Erroll Davis.

Scandals involving students who cheat, while always serious, are nothing new. But widespread cheating by those hired to teach children represents a different, and equally disturbing, development.

In 2002, the federal No Child Left Behind Act launched a trend toward greater accountability in education, increasing the importance placed on standardized tests as a way to benchmark success.

Now it appears that the demands to see test scores rise are giving way to a temptation to cheat.

Teachers can often earn bonuses for showing improvement on tests by their students. At the same time, they may fear – sometimes with good cause – that their jobs will be at stake if their students don’t test better. They also may feel pressure not to let down fellow teachers and administrators.

Unfortunately, Atlanta is not facing this problem alone. Reports of other instances of cheating continue to be heard around the United States. In Massachusetts, for example, education officials had to invalidate 74 math exams taken at an elementary school in Somerset last year because they showed a “disturbing pattern” of student answers, indicating teacher tampering.

Is making strong demands on teachers and students, asking them to meet tough testing standards, wrong? Not at all. Students must be carefully evaluated to ensure that they graduate with the skills they will need as adults.

The lesson from Atlanta, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, is a simple one: “Integrity matters, honesty matters.”

Teachers must not only teach the subject matter but provide an ethical model for children. “Atlanta Public Schools has to regain the public’s trust, and that’s going to take time,” Secretary Duncan said. “But all you have is honor and integrity, and you’ve got to get back to that.”

Superintendent Davis, who only recently took over as temporary head of Atlanta’s school system, is studying ways to right the ship. He has already taken some strong measures.

“There is no place left in this organization for those who cheat,” Davis told the Journal-Constitution. “It is not compassionate to allow someone who has cheated to remain on payroll.”

Reforms under way include requiring the school system’s 6,000 employees to complete ethics courses. And test results will be more closely scrutinized to uncover suspicious patterns that will trigger investigations.

In addition, whistle-blowers should know that they will be supported and protected against intimidation if they report wrongdoing.

Teachers’ fears that they could lose their positions during a tough job market need to be addressed. Knowing that they are in a fair system, and that they have the support they need to succeed, can help calm those fears.

So can knowledge that test scores will not be the only criteria used to judge their teaching ability.

Testing isn’t the problem. Rooting out the fears that tempt teachers to cheat is.

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