In wake of scandal, high-stakes testing needs a fix

Gordon Vessels teaches graduate education and psychology students online. His experience includes public school teaching, social work, and school psychology. He was a school psychologist for APS for 15 years.

As a former employee of the Atlanta Public Schools, I worked with many principals with unquestionable moral character and hundreds of wonderful teachers. There were also several times when I witnessed administrators looking the other way when unethical things were happening. During the 1990s, I discovered in the permanent records of individual students low standardized test scores for all years except one — which had high scores.

The recent convictions thus came as no surprise. As one who is familiar with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law and the apparent harmful effects of high-stakes testing, I feel compelled to offer support for these educators by explaining what I think may be their perspective and that of many urban educators.

Fairness requires an understanding of educators’ beliefs and motivation. They likely believe, and are arguably justified in believing, that scores from high-stakes tests are often not reliable and valid indicators of students’ actual learning, particularly students who have limited support outside of school.

They probably believe the results for failing to make adequate yearly progress do damage to schools and students. NCLB is based on the assumption that one standardized test administered near the end of the year can be a reliable and valid indicator of student learning and teacher performance. Qualitative indicators of student progress and teaching effectiveness are not even mentioned in the law. The effects of NCLB have been a narrowing of the curriculum and a decrease in the morale of teachers who almost unanimously view it as having negative effects. The U.S. Senate is debating a law that will supposedly fix what is wrong with NCLB, the Every Child Achieves Act. But as it stands today, high-stakes standardized testing is still in the bill.

High-stakes testing once a year is an uninformed and ill-advised way to evaluate students, teachers, and schools, if not combined with other measures. Atlanta teachers and administrators, like thousands of other teachers and administrators nationwide, are convinced being judged by such tests is unfair, particularly for school systems and schools that serve predominantly impoverished populations. They view the test as unfair to teachers, schools, school systems, and students.

I do not condone, and I view as unethical any score-altering that results in low -functioning students not getting the help they need. But I still must defend teachers and administrators who have shown the courage to say the premises of NCLB are false and some of its effects have been damaging. Both of these perspectives must be balanced for fairness to prevail for these convicted educators. Had I been in the shoes of these educators when they were sentenced, I would have apologized for harming individual students if the evidence was compelling. But I would have defended the morality of resisting a law that is, on balance, harmful, even though it has caused us to look more closely at historically underperforming demographic groups and seek to accelerate their progress.

I hope the appeal of their convictions leads to a broader view, lighter sentences, and increased attention to flaws in both NCLB and the current version of the Every Child Achieves Act before it is passed into law.