The Hosing of Atlanta
Q: What’s the best way to encourage cheating among school people?
A. Pay them bonuses for improved test scores.
Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 other school people were indicted last week on charges that they conspired to cheat on federally mandated standardized tests from 2005 to 2010. The grand jury charged that Hall, several top aides, principals, and teachers benefited financially from tampering with test results.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, employees in schools that met 70% of their annual test targets received bonuses from a few hundred dollars to $1000. The superintendent herself received bonuses of $225,000 for those years and a total of $580,000 over the past ten years.
In districts the size of Atlanta, conspiracy demands a
secrecy that quite frankly is pretty impressive give the number of people
involved. In addition, he grand jury
pointed to numerous instances in which the administration refused to
investigate charges of cheating or simply ignored directives from the state
education department. If convicted, Hall
could spend the rest of her life in jail and would be the highest-
profile school leader convicted for cheating. Last year former El Paso superintendent Lorenzo Garcia pleaded guilty to multiple counts including test fraud. Garcia was sentenced to three years in prison.
While the mere scope of the scandal is impressive, I find it hard to believe that Atlanta stands alone in falsifying test scores in the face of high personal stakes. On the one hand, there are bonuses if kids do well. On the other hand, some people may lose their jobs if kids do poorly. This is not, I must say, a situation that breeds honesty.
Manipulating test scores on a scale as large as the Atlanta school district is impressive for the sheer size of the operation. But how hard is it to manipulate test scores in a small school district or a single school? If the personal stakes are high – bonuses or job loss – suddenly the unthinkable situation becomes The Winter of our Discontent.
Awarding superintendents (or anyone else) bonuses for improved test scores is just plain wrong. This isn’t the NCAA (where incentives for winning have produced similar instances of wrongdoing). Superintendents, principals, teachers – their job is to help kids learn the best they can. That’s the job. Handing out cash suggests that they won’t do their job unless they get another cash incentive, but guess what? The Atlanta people didn’t do their job because they got a cash incentive. Likewise, firing people because their test scores aren’t good enough becomes not an incentive to teach better, but an incentive to cheat.
This is where obsessive testing gets us: Kids pay the price and adults walk away with cash.