The media in recent weeks has focused a great deal of attention on the cheating scandal in Atlanta in which authorities have indicted 35 officials and teachers in the Atlanta Public Schools system for allegedly altering the results of students’ state standardized tests to reflect higher scores.
There have been similar allegations in other schools and districts around the country. What is unique about Atlanta, however, is the scope of the alleged fraud. Those who work in education know that it is virtually impossible to keep a secret about even the most trivial matters in a large urban school district. One cannot help but ask, therefore, how a scheme of this magnitude (with so many teachers and administrators directly involved) could gain such momentum.
By all accounts, it appears that pervasive in the culture of the district was the “Machiavellian” notion that the ends of increasing student test scores outweighed the means, and that it was this culture that enabled such widespread cheating. Indeed, many point to an array of incentives that the superintendent allegedly used to reward those who generated higher test scores, whatever the cost to students.
The superintendent, however, does not operate in a vacuum. Even the superintendent is accountable to the school board. The superintendent alone cannot establish policy. Nor can she create financial incentives for employees without the approval of the school board. She takes her cues as the tone of her leadership and school district culture from the school board. If not, the school board should remove her. Why then has there been so little media attention on the role of the board in the Atlanta cheating scandal?
The school board, at least as much as the superintendent, is responsible for creating a culture of integrity, honor, and accountability within the district. Effective school boards model these values both in the conduct of school board meetings and in their interactions with school communities.
Moreover, effective school boards recognize and constantly communicate to others the critical importance of accurate data in improving instruction and learning outcomes. They establish policies to ensure the integrity of test results. They examine student data on a routine basis, and hold district and school administrators accountable for the effective use of the data. In so doing, the board ought to catch extreme abnormalities in the data, ask probing questions, and err on the side of a full investigation any time there is any reason to suspect even the slightest impropriety.
Reading the media accounts of the Atlanta cheating scandal, one is reminded of the Enron scandal, in which high level executives engaged in fraudulent accounting practices that devastated a company, its shareholders and employees right under the noses of its board of directors. In response to such abuses, the federal government passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which imposes a higher standard of accountability on corporate executives and boards of directors. Among other things, the Act requires top management to certify the accuracy of financial reports. The Act also imposes heightened responsibilities on corporate boards, through standing audit committees, to oversee the actions taken by top management.
Testing data is to schools, students and parents as financial information is to corporations, shareholders, and employees. Perhaps a set of rules similar to those imposed by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is necessary to ensure the integrity of student data. Perhaps top management (such as the Superintendent, and chief accountability officer) should be required to personally investigate and certify the accuracy of student test data. Likewise, perhaps school boards should be required to have standing committees to review the process and ensure its integrity.
Many argue that the lesson learned in Atlanta and elsewhere is that “high-stakes” testing will inevitably lead to cheating. This is a sad conclusion, indeed. It reflects a lack of confidence in the ability of all students to improve, and excuses from responsibility those adults upon whom our students are relying to help them improve. Worse yet, it excuses those adults from even behaving ethically, and endorses behavior that sets a terrible example for students. Cheating is not symptomatic of an inherent flaw in high-stakes testing (though there may be flaws). Instead, cheating reflects a lack of integrity, leadership and good governance that is essential to the success of our system of public education.
There are very few areas in which school districts require more rather than less regulation. Sadly, it appears that this may be one such area. With or without additional regulation, however, the critical role of the school board in preventing such abuses cannot be overstated or overlooked.
For further guidance on best practices in testing security, see “Issues and Recommendations for Best Practices,” which is based on comments and ideas generated during a Testing Integrity Symposium that the U.S. Department of Education held in February 2012. This publication can be found at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2013/2013454.pdf.