Lessons from Atlanta

The Atlanta public school system is feeling the consequences of the obsession with high-stakes educational testing.

There, some 178 teachers and principals and teachers, at 44 different schools, are accused of cheating to raise standardized test scores. And no wonder.

Educators told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of enormous pressure to raise scores, and a “culture of fear” where teachers whose students got low marks could be fired. Same for teachers who blew the whistle.

Can’t happen here? Well, at least a few of the major ingredients needed for a testing scandal are already on hand here in Sacramento.

Here, the daily newspaper has already called for evaluating Sacramento teachers based on student test scores. That echoes the philosophy of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and his (still) fiancée, education reform celebrity Michelle Rhee.

Rhee chose Sacramento for her StudentsFirst lobbying group, which has test-score based evaluations at the top of its agenda.

Rhee famously pushed merit pay for higher test scores during her tenure as chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C. Today, the U.S. Department of Education is beginning an investigation of possible cheating on standardized tests in D.C. as well.

In Baltimore, another test-cheating scandal is beginning to unwind. And the group FairTest says the number of reported cheating incidents around the country “has exploded” in recent years.

Last week, Bites wrote about the troubled Twin Rivers Unified School District where, among many other problems, the Sacramento County grand jury found that history and science curriculum is being neglected, and there’s concern that “the focus of teaching is to raise state test scores.”

In the Sacramento city schools, educators watching the rough treatment of teachers at Hiram Johnson High School—one of a handful of special “priority schools” where test scores have lagged—are getting the message loud and clear. When high-stakes testing is the name of the game, somebody always comes in last. And the devil take the hindmost.

Test scores don’t tell you much about teacher effectiveness. But they are pretty good predictors of how wealthy your school is, and how white. The journalism nonprofit ProPublica published a fascinating database last week, along with an investigative story titled “The Opportunity Gap.”

The data compared access to advanced classes and curriculum to the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch.

Tooling around the Sacramento data, it’s clear that education opportunity is still largely tied to your neighborhood.

To take just one example out of many: At the high-achieving Crocker Riverside Elementary School in Land Park, just 10 percent of kids qualify for free lunch. There, 17 percent of kids are eligible for Gifted & Talented Education programs.

A mile away is Jedediah Smith Elementary, which neatly carves the kids from the low-income housing on Broadway out of Crocker’s attendance area. A whopping 94 percent of the kids at Jed Smith are on free lunch. But according to the ProPublica database, none of the kids there are deemed by the district to eligible for GATE. (Check out your neighborhood school at http://projects.propublica.org/schools.)

Of course, it’s easier to attack teachers than to attack inequality. The testing crowd tells you that economic background doesn’t matter. For them, more testing with tougher consequences will hold teachers and principals “accountable.” In Atlanta and elsewhere, that approach has already failed the test. (Note: Regular readers know Bites married a teacher, and that all the contents herein are therefore anarcho-syndicalist propaganda.)