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"Black Box" Ethical Reasoning and the Atlanta Test-Cheating Scandal

Who is to Blame in the Atlanta Public School Cheating Scandal?

The cheating scandal in Atlanta, which led to the indictment of 35 teachers and school officials last month, raises ethical issues related to whether tests are to blame for student cheating and for school administrators allowing teachers to help students cheat.

According to the indictment and a state investigation, teachers held cheating “parties” to erase and change answers on state-mandated tests. One principal wore gloves to guard against leaving fingerprints.

Teachers who failed to meet testing goals were fired. So were whistle-blowers. Teachers who succeeded garnered financial rewards. The indicted school superintendent, who has denied wrongdoing, pocketed $580,000 in bonuses for her achievements.

Some have blamed the test itself for promoting an atmosphere of cheating and even rewarding of such behavior. These folks claim there are unintended consequences of our test-crazed policies. Others believe sanctioning cheating on tests is not a reflection of our testing culture but, instead, it shows what dishonest people do when bonuses are at stake and they're afraid they won't get them: They cheat.

There's plenty to debate about high-stakes testing: Is it the best way to measure student learning? Does it spur teaching to the test at the expense of more useful education? How much of a role should it play in teacher evaluations?

But cheating has no place in that discussion. Combining the two diminishes any honest debate about testing, excuses dishonest acts, obstructs efforts to prevent cheating and magnifies cheating into a false "everybody's doing it" problem. The statistics do not support this position.

While scandals have erupted in some of the nation's largest school districts, USA Today found statistical indications of cheating in districts in six states and Washington D.C. But there are nearly 14,000 districts in the US and cheating has been documented in a tiny fraction.

High-stakes testing, ushered in by the No Child Left Behind law during President George W. Bush's administration, provided a key element many schools lacked: a measure of accountability. Blaming the cheating on the tests is like blaming a bank with lots of money for being robbed.

The proper response to cheating is to ensure that it doesn't occur. This isn't complicated: Use independent monitors. Limit access to tests before and after they are given. Bar teachers from monitoring their own classrooms. Also needed: city and civic leaders who step up when confronted with allegations of cheating — the opposite of what happened in Atlanta.

After The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found evidence of cheating in 2008, civic and business leaders were more worried about protecting the city's reputation than the future of its children. It took a governor and a local prosecutor to follow through with independent investigations.

In Washington, the mayor and key City Council members recently decided against investigating evidence of earlier cheating to inflate scores despite a 2009 document indicating that as many as 191 teachers might have cheated. The failure to sanction teachers who enable cheating sends the wrong message that cheating is OK in some situations to other teachers, administrators, parents and, most of all, our nation’s school children.

From an ethical perspective, those who sanction cheating and enable it to occur operate in the “black box” world of ethical relativism. This is a philosophy that holds: “My ethics are my ethics and no one can tell me whether it is right or wrong.” (How do we know what your ethics are? Isn't this an example of judging the rightness or wrongness of an act by the standards of the person who commits the act?)

Black box ethics is antithetical to a civilized society with ethical norms that should guide actions in our personal and professional lives. We can’t pick and choose which ethical standards to follow and when we follow them. If we continue to go down the road of black box ethical thinking, we will surely continue to disintegrate as a civilized society just like the recent incidents in Aurora, Colorado, Newton, Connecticut, and the Boston Marathon – to name a few.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 29, 2013