I have written this before, and I have shared this in presentations I have given, but it’s worth reflecting upon it again:

My biggest regret in education is the emphasis I placed on standardized test scores during my time as an administrator in SAU16.

I became known as the “data guy’.  Blech.  I railed against teacher generated assessments and more for the “more scientific” NWEA and NECAP test scores.  Blech.  I complimented those teachers whose students showed improvement, and pushed those whose students did not.  Blech.

As a parent, I could not care less about my children’s test scores because I know they are not true indicators of who they are.

And now, the indictments of Superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 others in the Atlanta School District for manipulating student tests in order to artificially inflate test scores (and receive massive bonuses) force me to reflect upon the culture I may have helped create.  Specifically, this quote from the indictment strikes hard:

Over time, the unreasonable pressure to meet annual APS [Atlanta Public Schools] targets led some employees to cheat on the CRCT [Criterion Referenced Competency Tests].  The refusal of Beverly Hall and her top administrators to accept anything other than satisfying targets created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education.

I know that I didn’t receive any monetary benefit above and beyond my salary while in SAU16, but did I help create a culture of pressure?  Did I push to the point where anything other than “satisfactory targets” are accepted?  I recently wrote about the email alert I received to get my kids to bed early and feed them a hearty meal in order for them to be able to concentrate on their tests… did I set the tone five years ago that resulted in this thinking?

I can recall chairing a committee when I was the Curriculum Administrator of the Cooperative Middle School designed to bring the school from “Good to Great” (yes, we stole the title).  During the very first meeting, a teacher* asked, “Is this is about improving test scores?  If so, I’m out.”

I wish I asked that question more back then.  I may not be asking it as much today.

*That teacher is now my son’s English teacher…and he’s a better person as a result.


Related Posts:

The Role of the Institution is to Maintain the Institution
The Grand(?) Plan
Shame on Me.  Shame on You



  1. It is such a see-saw, I am sure, for administrators — to not wish to emphasize test scores, but the realization of the fact that it is a easy “hey lookie” for many to look at….parents, students, teachers, etc.

    Yet, on the other hand…….there are so many variables that could sway test scores — that truly, is it a boast? an easy boast?

    However, so many administration still cling to the “look at our test scores” —
    and I applaud you for being bold on your blog to say “I regret this……”

    And bravo to the other teacher who was brave enough to say ““Is this is about improving test scores? If so, I’m out.”

    And YAHOO that your son is blessed to be able to call that person now “My Teacher!”

    I admire transparency — and I appreciate evidences of growth —
    Thank you for sharing both with this post.

    • Thanks Jen. You’ve nailed the problem, test scores are the low hanging fruit, easy to hang one’s hat on. The problem is, once you start focusing on data, you spend the rest of your time chasing data. Good is never good enough. Our school always scored well, but year after year, I found that our last year’s scores were never good enough.

  2. Thanks for this Tony. I think you’re modeling for us and your kids, what it looks like to be reflective and transparent, not easy to do, so again, thanks.
    I spent some time today watching this again, and it was really worth the time.


    “Persistence in the face of a skeptical authority figure is priceless, and yet we undermine it”
    “Grades are an illusion; passion and insight are reality”
    “If you care enough about the work to be willing to be criticized for it, then you have done a good day’s work”

  3. Hey Pal,

    I haven’t had the chance to whip up a post about this, but doesn’t the ATL comments about the impact that unrealistic expectations and pressures had on the decision that teachers made to teach remind you of the way that people — factories and farmers — worked in the Soviet Union?

    Stalin would set ridiculous targets that were impossible to meet. Then, he would punish people severely for not meeting those targets. The result: People lied about what they produced all the time — so while everyone was “meeting their targets,” the country was still falling apart at the seams.

    This kind of stuff shouldn’t be surprising to us. The only explanation for why we still pursue these kinds of policies, I think, is that our legislators just don’t care what the consequences are for schools.

    And that’s frightening.

    Anyway…rock on,

  4. Tony

    I agree with your distaste for standardized tests …since I was a teenager taking SAT’s, I’ve been troubled by my entire worth as a college student being reduced to that score. I agree that the push for quantitative measurement of learning/teaching is well intended but creating a real mess.

    I hope you are not forgiving the behavior of Ms. Hall and the others complicit in this mess … their behavior was reprehensible. While the system is screwed up and the pressure on school administrators is real, these people behaved criminally.

    While I understand the intent of Bill’s comment above, America is not Socialist Russia … (not yet, anyway). Our culture does not put people in prison camps for blowing whistles and pushing back against authority. I hope we don’t fall to the temptation to use incidents like this to prove the point about the broken system. The system is surely broken, but the behavior in this case is as well. I suggest that excusing the latter because of the former is intellectually dishonest.


    • Mike,
      As always, thanks for sharing your perspective.

      No, I do not excuse the behavior of those involved in Atlanta, most notably the Superintendent. However, the pressure to raise test scores is so great that I think folks do lose perspective. When monetary benefits are dangled as a carrot, it makes it harder to make the “right” decisions. Sure, we all know what is right, but when simple little edits (that presumably no one will know about) can result in money, accolades, promotions, etc it makes choosing the right decision hard. This is most notable when a culture of “or else” is established and the test machine has spent the last decade cultivating that “or else” culture.

  5. Thanks for the reply, Tony. I get the pressure issue …but life is full of temptations and pressure to compromise our standards. I admit I compromise mine, but this situation isn’t a matter of a bad judgement call …it is an unambiguous violation of the duties of her office that can’t stand up to rationalization or be explained away as “…a bad call.”.

    I think we cheapen the core argument about the crappy system when we use examples like this to illustrate the problem. When we couple them, it creates an implied excuse for the behavior that has none.

    Maybe I’m a contrary voice (again!) on your blog, but for me the integrity of the process (the argument, in this case) adds or detracts from the integrity of the argument itself.

    • Mike,
      I was not clear enough in my remarks… there is no excuse for the Superintendent. As a leader, we demand and expect more from her and she has the obligation to lead past those pressures, not succumb to them. I do have empathy for those teachers who may have been tempted to make adjustments based on a culture of “or else” that was established by their superiors. True, the knew they were doing “wrong”, but when faced with the consequences (job loss, demotion, involuntary transfer) it’s easy to understand how they may have decided that the “right” decision wasn’t the best decision at that point.

      What is clear throughout is that when we reduce the evaluation of students, teachers, schools, districts, etc, we reduce an incredibly complex profession to its least common denominator – test scores. Sure, there are those in business who argue that we live in a “bottom line world”, but I choose to reject test scores as “bottom line”. Our kids deserve more.

  6. Tony,
    Complete, passionate agreement with your last paragraph. Even in the bottom line oriented business world, and good business leader or recruiter will tell you that you hire people, not resumes. Its our way of honoring the point you are making: people are more than the school they went to or their GPA. The collective set of life experiences one has forms in a large part who they are and what they are capable of. I’ve always admired your POV on this issue as it relates to education. Our kids absolutely deserve more, and it sickens me that our society doesn’t do better.


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