The Editorial Board's Opinion: CRCT cheating deserves tough treatment

The three R’s are cornerstones of learning. But other, bedrock things are imparted in schools, too. Important among them are time-honored civic ideals necessary to raising honest, functional citizens.

Among these generally accepted societal principles is the notion that cheating is bad. Morality is often seen as a sliding scale in today’s world. Still, most of us know cheating when we see it. Educators should be especially familiar with it.

That’s what makes this summer’s thankfully isolated allegations that answers were changed on Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests a disheartening lesson in civics, especially for young people.

It’s true that, in today’s No Child Left Behind environment, making the grade on tests is more important than ever for schools. Even so, educators have held positions of esteem since the days of one-room schoolhouses, where switch-wielding teachers held near-absolute authority in their spartan classrooms. That respect was usually well-deserved.

Teachers, through action and example, play a strong role in molding students into citizens expected to play by the rules and be active, engaged participants in their communities. “We’re teaching kids all of the time, even when we don’t know that we’re teaching them,” says Tim Callahan of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

Thus, a notable lesson began with Georgia officials’ good call to investigate things after an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed unusually steep gains in test scores at some schools.

In the wake of cheating reports, school systems in DeKalb and Fulton counties and Glynn County on Georgia’s coast took administrative actions they deemed appropriate.

The Georgia Professional Standards Commission recently moved to sanction two DeKalb educators by suspending their professional credentials. That’s a serious action and one that does not seem to have been entered into lightly, which is as it should be.

Tackling the issue head-on is what parents and taxpayers expect. It’s also what students need to see — that poor choices are often discovered and have consequences.

The Atlanta Public Schools have addressed part of the problem. To its credit, APS placed an assistant principal on leave pending the outcome of administrative proceedings. Some substitute teachers also won’t be recalled.

The district says it has reinforced the need to exactly follow testing protocols. That shows APS took seriously the procedural sloppiness regarding the test.

The district’s rejection of the state’s conclusion that cheating occurred is harder to fathom, yet alone defend.

The investigator retained by APS to examine the allegations of tampering with the 2008 summer CRCT math retest at Deerwood Academy produced a report that attempts to have it both ways. The report concludes that, “despite the irregularities,” no one has yet proved that anyone “actually altered answers or tampered with the answer sheets.”

Demanding a high standard of proof is admirable, especially since the assertions leveled are serious ones that can devastate careers. The APS’ refusal to accept the audit’s main finding does nothing, though, to inspire confidence among those who abhor cheating and worry that children were harmed by inflating their scores, thus masking learning challenges that should be addressed.

The district’s position also casts an unintended cloud over APS’ many accomplishments in recent years. That’s a shame.

In our opinion, given considerable evidence that tests were adulterated, APS should make every effort to find out what really happened at Deerwood Academy.

The state’s accusations were serious enough to get the criminal justice system involved in DeKalb County. There, the district attorney has brought felony charges against two administrators.

True, the charges raised are serious ones that call into play questions of basic honesty and integrity, but that doesn’t make them worthy of felony prosecution and possible prison time. State and school district administrative penalties seem sufficient in our view, given that the district has begun proceedings that could result in firing one of the two accused. Depriving professionals of their livelihood seems punishment enough. DeKalb should drop criminal charges and let the two get on with their lives.

Yes, educators must be held to high standards. Even so, we’d be remiss in not noting again that education is a more-harried profession in these test-happy times. Making the cut on standardized tests is paramount, lest schools lose the coveted “Adequate Yearly Progress” stamp of approval.

No reasonable person doubts that schools should be held accountable for achievement, but the constant pressure to “win” the testing battle every time puts educators in a pressure cooker to achieve results. That’s not to excuse those who may have altered test papers or who have mercilessly drilled students in a “teaching to the test” pedagogy that abandoned most pretense of real learning.

Sure, testing should be a significant part of assessing student performance. It shouldn’t be the holy grail, though.

Young minds have the inimitable capacity to learn rote facts quickly — and to forget them soon after test proctors scoop up answer sheets.

Real learning is what occurs on non-test days. It’s what will best prepare Georgia’s kids to be responsible citizens who can also compete with the world for the jobs of tomorrow.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

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