Bitter harvest of APS cheating scandal

In 2009, the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education featured Atlanta’s Parks Middle School on its annual bus tour of high-achieving schools, and I joined the visit. I arrived early in my own car, beating the bus and getting a chance to chat with students for an hour.

The students expressed pride in their school, which was decorated with banners announcing its awards and distinctions. And there were many.

In 2006, Parks Middle made adequate yearly progress and surpassed Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall’s even more ambitious targets. That same year, the percentage of eighth-graders who passed the math section of the CRCT rose from 24 percent to 86 percent. In 2008, Parks earned national accolades after becoming Atlanta’s only middle school to meet all its academic targets.

Over the weekend, I dug into my old files — a box in my closet — for my notebook from Parks. Among the quick observations I had jotted down: “Kids proud of school.” “Telling me about their high test scores.” “Staff all smiles waiting for bus.”

They aren’t smiling now. Nor are students bragging about terrific test scores.

According to the state investigation into cheating sparked by an AJC investigation, the miraculous test scores at Parks reflected systematic cheating by charismatic principal Christopher Waller.

Waller is among the 35 APS school leaders indicted Friday by a Fulton County grand jury for conspiring to cheat on mandated standardized tests. Leading off the indictments is Hall, who championed Waller and, according to the indictment, protected him from staff complaints that he pressured teachers to cheat.

The indictment describes school leaders for whom test scores became more important than students. It’s not just that students were promoted when they weren’t ready; the alleged collusion of Waller and his staff to doctor student scores delivered a message that belied all the student affirmations on the classroom walls proclaiming “The power is within me” and “I can be whatever I want to be.”

In surveying all the wreckage from the CRCT cheating scandal, the worst is the perception that students in Atlanta’s poorest schools were unteachable. According to the 90-page indictment, Hall “created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education.”

While that self-serving focus created doubts about student abilities, it also fueled doubts among teachers about their abilities. I met veteran educator Julie Rogers-Martin through my children, who attended a church youth group that she led. I marveled at how she inspired jaded adolescents to get up at dawn to present a sunrise Easter service.

She then decided to return to the classroom and was thrilled to be hired at a progressive APS elementary school where she invented creative projects for her class, including building an imaginary zoo funded through an excellence-in-teaching grant she won.

Still, something didn’t seem right. Rogers-Martin told me about students who came to her class barely able to read yet had posted top CRCT scores the previous year. And struggling students she recommended for special education suddenly were exceeding expectations on next year’s state tests.

“The obsession with scores wore us down because no matter how much the students improved — and they were improving — it was never enough unless every single student was passing: no exceptions, no excuses,” said Rogers-Martin, who, dispirited, eventually left APS. “Even when parents contested the scores and begged for their children to be held back, they were moved on, and sent with a directive to the teacher: get this child on level by the test. Even if pre-assessments showed they were two and three years behind in skills, the directive was the same: No exceptions, no excuses.”

“We worked 10 hours a day, came home, worked some more, graded papers all weekend, and then were expected to write reports as to how we were addressing the failing scores of the students that should never have been in our classes to begin with. It’s hard to be inspiring,” said Rogers-Martin, “when you are beat down each week in the war room with ‘no exceptions, no excuses.’”

Now, it’s the APS leadership being told by the grand jury, “no excuses.”

There is nothing more devastating to a society than low expectations for our youth. But, when expectations are not tempered with reality, it sucks the life out of everyone involved, especially the teachers who have given their lives to create, inspire, and empower.

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