Incentivizing cheating: Can we learn from Atlanta?

Key figures in the Atlanta school cheating scandal admit to the practice, but did we learn anything about incentives?

Public school teachers and administrators trickled into the Fulton County jail in Atlanta today. It’s the deadline for educators indicted in a widespread cheating scandal in the Atlanta public schools to surrender, or face arrest. In all, 35 people face charges in an alleged conspiracy to inflate standardized test scores in order to receive cash bonuses.

To critics who believe standardized testing in public schools is out of control, the lesson from Atlanta is clear: the stakes are too high.

“Educators are being told that their jobs are on the line,” says Diane Ravitch, an education historian and leading opponent of test-based school reform. “Their evaluation is on the line, their career, their reputation. Their school will be closed if the scores don’t go up.”

In Atlanta, teachers and principals got bonuses if they raised test scores enough. If they didn’t, they could lose their jobs.

“I think that the wrong lesson would be to just blame teachers and say it’s their fault,” Ravitch says. “They’re trapped in a system that is rewarding them for doing the wrong thing.”

The anti-testing movement is gaining traction. Earlier this year teachers in Seattle refused to give their students a widely-used standardized test. The district just announced plans to reduce testing and says the teachers won’t be punished. Last week, legislators in Texas passed a bill to limit the number of tests students have to take.

Anyone thinking about cheating on those tests got a wakeup call this week. “I think the image of 35 people having to walk into a jail this morning and get booked is going to have an incredibly powerful impact on suppressing cheating,” says Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Rather than stop testing, though, Walsh says we need better monitoring and tests that better reflect what teachers are actually teaching. She says those are on their way, from two different state groups developing new assessments.

“Testing is an important part of school accountability, but we have to be careful on how much emphasis we put on a single indicator,” says Joan Herman, senior scientist at CRESST, a group that studies student testing.

Herman says any measure of a school’s quality should include classroom observations, analysis of student work and parents -- who should have a pretty good idea what their children are learning at school.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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