Who's Cheating Whom? Atlanta Scandal Makes Us Wonder What It's All About

There is a drama unfolding even as I write: 35 suspects have been indicted in a criminal conspiracy, and only a few of them have surrendered to authorities. They face decades in prison and millions of dollars in fines. The deadline for all to give themselves up is today.

Is this about drugs? Kidnapping? Treason? Securities fraud?

Nothing so alien as that; it is an everyday criminal context: It's about administrators and teachers changing answers on standardized tests in order to boost their schools' and districts' scores. Former superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools Beverly Hall made it clear that she would reward teachers whose students achieved higher test scores and punish those whose did not.

But after a set of criminal investigators worked on teachers to turn state's evidence, wearing a wire to break the silence about the score-changing events where Dr. Hall wore gloves as she handled the answer sheets, this has exploded into a full-fledged crime show.

There is no need to rehash the question of whether teachers' value should be tied to their students' test-score improvement, nor about whether scores of even special needs students and those just learning English should be included in the scores of a given school. (This tends to boost the scores of charter schools, who have fewer of those categories of students.) We will not here discuss the absurdity of tying success to continual improvement. (I was once associated with a school with an attendance rate of 95 percent. They had to improve each year -- but some kids were bound to be out sick from time to time. So they aimed for 96 percent. Failure to meet goals would result in punishment.)

What I want to ask is about the point of all this testing.

Isn't our goal to get children ready for the world they will enter?

When all that matters is test results, people will do everything they can to make them look good. High-stakes testing gives the message that the process doesn't matter -- not even for the teachers. High-stakes testing puts the attention on the measurable: simple answers to simple questions.

And cheating is always tempting when people are in competition with each other. Ask Lance Armstrong. Ask the overseers of the Chinese Civil Service Examination, who struggled in vain for more than a thousand years to prevent cheating.

In the game of learning, everyone could be a winner. Not in the now-deplored sense that everyone gets a medal for participating. But in the sense that everyone could actually learn basic skills.

When schooling first became compulsory in the United States in Massachusetts in 1647, the goal was literacy and numeracy for all, so they could participate in the basic operations of democracy. In the neoliberal quest to pit every unit against every other unit -- child against child, teacher against teacher, school against school, district against district, state against state -- it has seemed as if the declared goal is to produce losers.

In that sense, Dr. Hall's fierce protection of her kids makes sense: She didn't want them to be losers.

But of course they are certainly seen that way now.

I like to think that this house of cards will now fall and that the era of children's death by assessment will soon end.

After all, some of the criminals will be behind bars. There will be others out there tempted to do the same thing. But maybe, just maybe, the conversation will become urgent and even sensible. And then we can go back to teaching kids.