By asking this question, I admit I'm being provocative. I'm not expressing doubts about the overall integrity and professionalism of teachers working in schools in Walnut Creek and surrounding communities. I find it hard to believe that teachers working in any of the five public school districts serving Walnut Creek lived in the "culture of fear and conspiracy of silence" that existed in the Atlanta school system and led to a cheating scandal over standardized tests.
Still, California public school teachers, schools, administrators and districts--like their counterparts in Atlanta--face high-stakes pressure over test scores. C'mon. How do any of us rate a school's quality? By its API scores. Good API scores, largely drawn from STAR tests, help determine property values and the desirability of certain neighborhoods and communities.
A lot rests on API scores.
I've heard so many teachers talk about how the post-No Child Left Behind emphasize on test scores had created an atmosphere of almost non-stop testing and the necessity to "teach to the tests."
Just this weekend, I was having coffee with a Walnut Creek woman who teaches third grade in an elementary school in the Mt. Diablo Unifed School District.
She bemoaned the amount of time in a school year taken up by tests--up to six weeks a year. I told her I wasn't surprised and shared how I was amazed to learn, when my son was in second grade, that he and his classmates spent a week on learning how to "bubble." That is, to properly fill in the bubbles on the multiple choice STAR tests they would start taking that year.
This teacher added that her school's principal, young and eager to follow the rules, has little time to concern herself with more substantial issues, such as whether students are really engaged in what they are being taught. She just cared about teachers raising students' test scores.
As this teacher described it, her principal wasn't interested in teachers or students drawing outside the metaphorical lines of a highly regimented, standards-based curriculum. In this teacher's school, the success of a teacher is not judged on whether her students are absorbing the material, comprehending the concepts, or learning to like learning.
Success is measured by a number tabulated by a computer crunching through stacks of tests.
In Atlanta, investigators concluded that some 178 educators in 44 schools engaged in "systematic misconduct." Principals publicly humiliated their employees and teachers erased out wrong answers on tests and marked in the correct answer.
A 413-page report, released by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R), found "systemic misconduct within the district as far back as 2001" and concluded that "thousands of school children were harmed by widespread cheating in the Atlanta Public School System. ... A culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence infected the school system."
"On a national level, the cheating story cuts to the heart of a major education policy debate over accountability,' the Huffington Post reported. "The Atlanta report's conclusion that cheating resulted from a culture of fear, one spurred by rising test-score targets, fuels the argument that policies determined by test scores provide perverse incentives that are not in the best interests of students."
Policies determined by tests scores are not in the best interests of students.
Interesting and disturbing conclusion, because more and more policies here in California schools seemed very much determined by test scores.