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Atlanta and New Orleans schools show the many ways administrators cut corners

“When high stakes are attached to tests, people often act in ways that compromise educational values. High-stakes testing incentivizes narrowing of the curriculum, gaming the system, teaching to bad tests and cheating.”

That passage, taken from a July 1 letter education historian Diane Ravitch wrote to the New York Times disputing columnist David Brooks’ characterization of her public policy views, can easily be superimposed onto the current national education portrait.

Ever since Congress and President George W. Bush reauthorized the Early and Secondary Education Act in 2002 to become No Child Left Behind (NCLB), schools have been under the gun to up state-mandated student test scores or face financial and structural consequences. Results from those exams are notoriously inflated or teased with public relations precision, not out of the malfeasance of school administrators but as a function of what happens when students are taught to a series of exams that determine a great portion of the state’s education funding.

“The central premise of NCLB was that states would be free to set their own version of what would constitute proficiency,” says Kristen Amundson, a former Virginia state legislator and school board member who now heads communications at Education Sector. “In a serious effort to not create a federal system of education, that legislation allowed states carte blanche.”

The result, she says, is “an institutional bias in states and local districts to believe that things are better than they really are.”

This week, 44 of the just over 100 schools in the Atlanta school district were implicated in a cheating scandal that calls into question years of high gains on the state’s annual Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT). The investigation ordered by a former governor of Georgia was triggered in part due to a set of reports published by the Atlantic Journal Constitution. The American Independent has reported on comparisons between the state’s high scores on the CRCT to the much more dour results on the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), putting the limelight on how federal education policy compels schools to cook their statistics to demonstrate adequate yearly gains.

Even without outright cheating, school systems are eager to fend off the punitive sting of state and federal stipulations for school progress with ethically dubious procedures. In New Orleans’ Recovery School District, administrators invited charter schools to cauterize the low-score bleeding of their districts; some improvements followed but critics allege serious collateral damage as mostly high-needs children are still being shipped around schools that are either underfunded or unwilling to tend to their needs.

The trouble, critics allege, began with decisions made in Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina.

In November 2005, the Louisiana Legislature passed Act 35 that put most of New Orleans’ schools in the hands of RSD, a school system introduced in 2003 by a separate piece of legislation that manages troubled institutions. Prior to the passage of Act 35, RSD operated five city schools. The new law increased the minimum performance threshold schools had to meet, deeming many in the city as failing.

As a result, between 107 and 115 schools were shuffled from the city’s original district — The Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) — into either RSD or Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) control. As of March 2011, there were five school classifications totaling 88 schools within the city headed by three public authorities. Only 29 are not charters. This map illustrates the extent to which the city’s schools are balkanized (PDF).

Raynard Sanders, a former professor of education who monitors the RSD, told TAI the district was given large sums of money following Hurricane Katrina, but not enough of it went to students.

“When they opened up the direct-run schools, they hired Teach for America, cheaper teachers but with very little experience,” he begins. “They didn’t put in a lot of social workers … but in the first year’s budget (2006-2007), $2,100 was spent per child on security.”

Before Katrina, Orleans Parish spent $46 on security per child, according to Ralph Adamo, author of “NOLA’s Failed Education Experiment.” For the 2008-2009 school year, RSD was spending $690 per student. And it is difficult to underplay the role of race and class: 89 percent of students in RSD and Orleans Parish, which make up the bulk of the city’s student population, are (PDF) black, and 91 percent of RSD students receive free or reduced-price lunch, a leading indicator of low income.

A 2010 study assembled(PDF) by the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI) and Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) examined the harsh disciplinary action RSD uses against its students. It found the rate of expulsion among RSD students in 2008 to be ten times the national average. Suspensions were also extremely high, with 29 percent of RSD students losing at least one instructional day — over four times the national average. The report quoted Thena Robinson, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, explaining that:

In most cases expulsions are a way to hide a school’s failure to address the educational needs of students. Our current education system is flawed by design as it focuses far too much on high stakes testing to measure academic success. As a result, schools are compelled to expel and push out “problem” students in an effort to meet state-wide performance standards.

The behavioral issues did not emerge from a vacuum:

In 2006, 42% of the students displaced by Hurricane Katrina had respiratory problems that might be linked to formaldehyde in FEMA trailers, and more than half had mental-health problems. In a 2009 article in The Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers found that 9.3% children in hurricane- affected areas have a “serious emotional disturbance … that is directly attributable” to the storm.

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