Perhaps it was inevitable.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act passed in the first months of the last Bush administration set up a structure nationwide by which schools had to meet certain criteria of student achievement or face consequences.
Since then, the results of various standardized tests have been used to gauge how much students have learned. Schools that don't make regular progress must allow students to transfer or receive tutoring, and the teachers and administrators at such schools are held accountable.
That aspect of the law has led to a new type of academic cheating: Test fraud. This time it isn't students smuggling in crib sheets, writing answers on their sleeve or copying off someone else's work. This type of cheating is done by school administrators trying to avoid penalties for low test scores.
Last week, a state audit found that educators at four schools altered test answers on the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests, given to first- through eighth-graders to judge their academic progress in reading, English language arts, math, science and social studies. Last month, two principals at DeKalb County's Atherton Elementary School were arrested and charged with changing state documents, a felony. The other schools accused of test fraud are Parklane Elementary in Fulton County, Burroughs-Molette Elementary in Glynn County and Deerwood Academy in Atlanta.
To learn that school officials would stoop so low is disappointing but not that surprising. As soon as No Child Left Behind put the onus on educators to produce results, the seed for test fraud was planted. Some people will do anything to keep their jobs, especially in tough economic times, and that may have led to such an ethical breach.
That's not to say that administrators shouldn't be responsible for student achievement. There must be a way to hold them accountable while still warding off the kind of desperate acts leaders at the four schools are accused of committing. The state must find ways to safeguard the validity of the tests.
Georgia's Department of Education took one such step Thursday by tossing out test results from the four schools suspected of fudging their scores. That means those schools now will not be considered as making Adequate Yearly Progress, which hurts all of their students and teachers, punishing the innocent along with the guilty.
It's a shame that it has come to this. Many decry the need to "teach to the test" by focusing class time specifically on material that may appear on the CRCT and other standardized exams. At times, we've joined that chorus.
But to date, no one has found a better way to measure student progress. Testing is the only practical way to gauge how much has been learned. And as long as that remains the method, it's vital to know that test scores are accurate and undoctored. School systems owe that to students, parents and taxpayers to ensure that the results we see are honest measures of student achievement.
No doubt, it's tough to be a teacher, now more than ever. We sympathize with the added level of responsibility that school officials, principals and educators face in the wake of heightened federal standards. As a community, we sweat it out with them as we await test scores, hoping that all schools in our area will show improvement, for the teachers' sake as well as the students'. Good scores are good news for everyone.
Thus, we applaud this year's CRCT numbers that show considerable progress across the board for schools in Gainesville, Hall County and other local districts. All of Hall County's elementary schools made Adequate Yearly Progress, two years after eight of them failed to do so. Gainesville is awaiting results from summer retests to learn if all of its schools did as well.
More than a celebration, it's a sigh of relief heard from school offices when those scores come back higher than last year's.
But despite the pressure and the greater burden schools must bear, we as a society never can tolerate educators who break the rules for selfish reasons. These are the people who teach our children every day; we need to know that their ethical standards are as high as their academic qualifications. If they are to help enforce the concepts of right and wrong that we teach our children at home and in church, they must set an example with their conduct.
The educators accused of fraud face a loss of their teaching licenses if found guilty. The state needs to make it clear that such penalties will be handed out to anyone found responsible for such acts, along with all applicable criminal charges. If dealing with the consequences of poor CRCT scores are bad, certainly the threat of job loss, fines and imprisonment are much worse.
We applaud the state for recognizing this problem quickly and adapting no-nonsense consequences for the schools in question. We hope it follows up by dealing harshly with any administrators tempted to follow suit.
Perhaps that disincentive will nip the problem in the bud before it becomes more widespread. Everyone needs to know that this type of crime does not pay, for anyone.