An Atlanta judge last week sentenced eight public school teachers, principals and administrators to jail for conspiring to inflate students' state test scores. Two of the 10 defendants managed to negotiate lighter sentences after admitting guilt and apologizing for their actions.
The sentencing was a tragic end to the Atlanta testing scandals that began in 2009. A few of the convicted educators got up to seven years in prison for colluding to commit academic fraud. According to news reports, the judge angrily admonished those who eschewed the plea bargain to admit guilt, which he urged them to do before sentencing.
"There were thousands of children that were harmed in this thing," Judge Jerry Baxter, of Fulton County Superior Court, said from the dais. "This is not a victimless crime that occurred in this city."
The consequences to these educators seems unfair, way off kilter with comparable cases. No doubt those educators on trial committed egregious, outrageous and unprofessional acts and should be held accountable to the students and system they violated. But putting them in jail doesn't seem like the most appropriate or useful consequence.
Stripped of their credentials, they have already lost their right to work as public school educators—a fitting punishment to the crime. Still, the defendants probably have something to contribute to help Atlanta students succeed in school, college or career. Sentencing those educators to years of academic tutoring time would be infinitely more beneficial. The entire nation faces a critical teaching shortage—since 2002, there's been a 66 percent drop in college graduates enrolling in graduate teaching programs. This scandal will only make matters worse.
How did we get to this point?
For decades, public education in the United States had little data to accurately assess how individual schools and subgroups of students were doing compared to grade-level peers in other schools and other states. Accountability, embodied by "high stakes" testing, became the coin of the realm in 2001 with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Consequences and rewards are part of the overall testing system, and they are determined by local state mandates. Some classroom teachers have been forced to teach to the test—an unfortunate byproduct of the systemic demands.
Even worse, the pressure to increase student scores led to an exodus of public school teachers and administrators who were sick of the stress and wholesale "dumbing down" of educational outcomes. In extreme cases, it pushed some people to alter student answers to produce more impressive results. That's the climate that engendered the unfortunate saga in Atlanta.
In 2015, we are enacting the Common Core and the Smarter Balanced assessments in California. Smarter Balanced assessments go beyond multiple-choice questions to performance tasks, which challenge the test-taker to use critical thinking and problem solving skills in practical, real-world situations.
This is a much richer interchange between the student and the assessment than the previous fill-in-the-bubble STAR assessments that the state employed during No Child Left Behind. The Smarter Balanced assessments aligned to Common Core have interim assessments which can be used as an instructional guide throughout the year.
The national Common Core controversy and students opting out of testing in record numbers has yet to extend to California. But it may gain national momentum during the presidential campaign, as the subject is brought into the national spotlight.
Christina A. Cassidy, of the Associated Press, reported last week that thousands of students are opting out of the new standardized tests aligned to Common Core.
"[T]ens of thousands of students sat out the first day of tests, with some districts reporting more than half of students opting out of the English test," Cassidy wrote. Preliminary reports indicate that opt-outs are up ten-fold over last year in New York, the report continues.
As of today, the California Academic Performance Index (API)—an indicator of a school's value—has yet to be replaced. What is known is that the new index will incorporate scoring on eight state priorities using several measures: student engagement, school climate and parent/community engagement in decision-making. The first new school-level API will return in fall of 2016, according to the California Board of Education.