Since the 2002 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by then-President George W. Bush, we’ve heard numerous critics complain that the law stifles real learning and puts undue pressures on teachers and schools. NCLB, which originally received support from both Democrats and Republicans, set high standards for education and put goals into place that teachers and schools had to reach…if they didn’t they’d face stiff penalties. Those who support the law believe that it was necessary to ensure improved student performance. They point to rising standardized scores as proof that NCLB has its place.

Now we’re learning that the improved test scores may be the result of systemic cheating, not by students but by their teachers. In Atlanta, as many as 178 teachers and principals from 44 public schools are suspected of having erased and changed some of the answers on student tests to improve scores for their schools. 82 of the teachers involved have already confessed to over a decade of cheating. Those involved blame the high-stakes pressure of NCLB, saying they had to do something to raise scores or risk losing their jobs. Their accusers maintain they acted in self-interest, cheating in order to earn a financial bonus. Whatever their reasons for cheating, one thing is clear: these educators have failed their students. The young people they were in charge of teaching don’t really know if their academic performance is where it should be and that is the real crime here.

The National Education Association, the country’s largest teacher’s union, has long fought against certain types of teacher accountability. Now, for the first time, members voted recently to approve a policy that will hold teachers accountable for what students learn. However, the union is—and always has been—strongly against the use of standardized, high-stakes tests. They have maintained from the beginning that these types of test put stress on educators, forcing them to abandon the basic principles of education and causing them to ‘teach to the test’.

This is all very confusing, even for adults. Can you imagine how our children must feel?

It’s no secret that the U.S. public education system is broken. As legislators sit down and think through the next phase of change—and, hopefully, improvement, for public education, there has to be serious thought given to the use of standardized tests. How will they be developed? What will be used to supplement them? We want to—and must—create a system that encourages our students to think critically while giving them the basic building blocks of an education. Our system needs to be one that holds teachers accountable without creating an environment that forces them to behave dishonestly.

We are not even close to where we need to be and our students are the ones suffering.

(Judge Greg Mathis is vice president of RainbowPUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)

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