Why Teachers in Atlanta Schools Cheated on Standardized Test

education of children, atlanta schools

What would make a teacher cheat?

When the Georgia Bureau of Investigation confirmed that there had been widespread cheating in Atlanta’s awarding-winning school district, one of the more shocking things was the lengths a few dozen teacher went to in order to boost the scores of their students. At one school, teachers met up over a weekend for a “changing party.” Armed with the correct answers (cracks me up that they needed an answer sheet!), they redid tests to increase the score.

But why? Sure, money could be a motivator. But awarding high test scores with a pay bonus is a relatively new strategy and the cheating had been going on, likely, for years.

An anonymous Philadelphia school teacher, who has helped students cheat on standardized tests, told the Notebook blog that cheating only sort of benefited her. What motivated her to hint at — if not directly point to — the right answer, she says, was sympathy for her students.

In the blog post Confessions of a Cheating Teacher, she says this:

“I never went to any student who didn’t call me to help them cheat,” said the teacher. “But if somebody asked me a question, I wasn’t willing to say, ‘Just do your best.’ They were my students, and I wanted to be there for them.”

But there was some self-preservation in her willingness to do wrong. She says that administrators bully the teachers and threaten them with losing their jobs if they don’t boost the scores and prevent the federal government from shutting down their failing school, a provision under No Child Left Behind.

“It’s easy to lose your moral compass when you are constantly being bullied.”

Indeed, the Atlanta teachers claimed they had been bullied as well and that the pressure from the top pushed them to do it. Those who refused to cave — and went to complain to the higher-ups — were either ignore or punished for trying to speak up.

The Philadelphia teacher says the testing wasn’t all cheating all the time. But the process turns out to be too grueling — eight hours of test spread out over a few days. At first, the students were eager to start. But toward the end, they just gave up.

From the Notebook blog:

As the testing sessions dragged on, she said, some students those who hadn’t already given up, or grown “sullen,” or just started filling in random bubbles would request help.

More often than not, she obliged.

“Kids would ask questions, and I would answer them,” she said.

For example, a student might ask what the word “amphibious” means.

Sometimes, she would give the student the definition. Other times, she would point to the place in the text where it was explained. On rare occasions, she would just direct the student to the correct response.

Part of her just wanted to keep her students engaged. Part of her wanted to transform the drudgery of test-taking into a learning opportunity if nothing else, they might learn a new word. And part of her wanted to undermine the whole testing enterprise.

“I never went to any student who didn’t call me to help them cheat,” said the teacher. “But if somebody asked me a question, I wasn’t willing to say, ‘Just do your best.’ They were my students, and I wanted to be there for them.”

In the end, this particular teacher wishes she would have approached it differently — addressing the academic deficiencies and the troubling culture that high-stakes testing created.

Photo: christian malmin via flickr

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