Standardized Tests, Funding Ties Put Undue Pressure on Teachers

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.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. Not clear how changing the type of tests would diminish the pressure on teachers subject to contracts based on pay/continued employment for “performance” Not trying to defend them but the Atlanta educators were offered bonuses for high-tech scores; the temptation (greed?) would have been similar with the new CommonCore tests.

  2. Disagree with several points.
    1. Jail time for Atlanta teachers “unfair”: Yes – to the public. I’d like to see their salaries clawed back / assets seized for cheating students of an education and the public that was paying for it. Jail is fine & hope that Atlanta charges them for the cost (about $120 / day for Santa Clara jails). It sends a clear message about consequences and that white collar crime merits something other than community service.

    2. There’s no evidence that any assigned to Atlanta’s gray-bar hotel were good teachers or have inherent value as educators. Baffling that you suggest they have any further involvement. But if prudent, let’s use pedophiles as sex education teaching assistants.

    3. Schools have had metrics for many years. These include per pupil spending, graduation rates, college acceptance, truancy, criminal justice statistics, and others. Not clear if additional metrics and testing has any tangible impact in outcome. If not, opting-out seems like a sensible response.

    4. Germany (and several other counties) use a track system. A number of US school districts did at one time too. My understanding is that system produces better overall outcomes. The US halted it due to racial differences (predominately whites & Asians in upper tracks; others in lower tracks), so we’ve ended up with our current lowest common denominator public school system.

    Perhaps adopting systems that have proven success records would be more effective than narrowly focusing on testing.

  3. I’m another taxpayer who doesn’t care one little bit that cheaters were sentenced to prison.

    Maybe now the rest of them will think twice before giving in to the tempatation to make themselves look good. Because that’s what this is about.

    My wife is a retired school Principal. My eyes were really opened at seeing the total corruption endemic to government education. Unions are extremely cozy with District Administration, bad teachers are everywhere but no one gets rid of them, or even tries to discipline them, money intended to repair schools is diverted to more teacher and administrator pay, districts are very top-heavy… and the students? The students are about the lowest priority in the whole .edu mess.

    Nothing will be done so long as governments run schools. So we regularly read stories like this. But at least there is one judge who has his head on straight. That’s some satisfaction, at least.

    • Smokey,
      Thanks for your view. I neglected to mention that if Mr. Di Salvo were truly interested in metrics, then he should contrast public school metrics against Catholic schools. My understanding (from former California Teachers Association executive) is that by virtually every measure, they are dramatically superior to San Jose public schools. If accurate, then what’s their secret sauce?

      FWIW, he has nothing but contempt for the County BOE. “SCC BOE is our most useless agency. We (Santa Clara County) have an urban school system with District management. SCC’s BOE just adds another layer of redundancy. Maybe in rural counties would a BOE be justified – but not here.” Based on SCC BOE squandering money on housing and negligent contracts, sure seems so.

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