I was greatly disheartened to hear of the allegations surrounding the thirty-five former educators who were indicted last Friday in what is becoming the United States’ largest test cheating scandal.1 I was especially saddened by the fact that the face of such a grand scandal is one I can identify with. Dr. Beverly Hall is a product of the Jamaican school system. She graduated from two of the most acclaimed high schools2 in our country and like many Jamaicans who have ventured abroad; she worked hard and earned a leadership position in her field. She was an English teacher who ultimately became the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.
Allegations are that Dr. Hall fostered an environment in which educators were forced to cheat (adjust answers on standardized tests) in order to raise students’ test scores and as such she was indicted for violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). In other words, Dr. Hall is accused of being too hard a taskmaster. In a Gleaner article dated April 14, 2009, Dr. Hall explained that her passion for excellence stems from the insistence on success by her Jamaican family and the strictness of instruction that prevails in our schools.3 While I cannot say with certainty that Dr. Hall is not culpable in this case, I do not hold in esteem any system that can implicate supervisors for the wilful, illegal acts of their subordinates.
The focus on Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCTs) as the sole authority on the success of students is similar to the Jamaican obsession with the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT). Students from grade four and up are made to focus on the subjects that will be tested- they are drilled with past papers, made to attend intensive extra lessons and study very hard. At the end of this testing the students and teachers breathe a unanimous sigh of relief and enter into a three-month academic slump, awaiting their results and placement. The difference between Georgia’s CRCTs and Jamaica’s GSAT is that the results of GSAT determine whether Jamaican students will attend a traditionally ‘good’ high school or be condemned to the oubliette– a newly-upgraded, all-age or technical high school. The two tests are also different in that Jamaican public school teachers do not receive performance-based incentives so they have no financial stake in the student’s success. I imagine that during Dr. Hall’s primary school days, an excellent score in the (now retired) Common Entrance Exam would have secured her a place at St. Hilda’s High.
While Jamaicans are wont to cheat in several ways- giving bun4, lotto scamming, political dishonesty5, and the folk heroification of Anancy the trickster, I have never been led to question our national academic integrity. A copy taker was the worst thing you could be called in school; no form of cheating was sanctioned at any level of my academic career but I am sure there are a few students who did it anyway. I have never imagined that teachers and education administrators could be guilty of such crimes. Unlike in Turkey where, as my friend related to me, cheating students are backed by their parents, teachers, administration and governmental policies; my experience is that an academically dishonest student is alienated in Jamaica. I do not want to believe that we have administrators or educators in our system who would participate in similar vices in order to save face. Or maybe I am young.
If my analysis of our system is incorrect, if Dr. Hall’s Jamaican-instilled mantra of having no choice but to succeed is what led her to “not do more to prevent it[cheating]”6 then we need to evaluate not only our educational structure but our social values, we need to find ways of instilling academic integrity from the ground up. We need to employ methods that will prevent children from copying others’ work in primary school, we must look into the teachers who are involved in the writing of these standardized tests and guarantee that the students they teach privately are not at an unfair advantage to those who cannot afford to pay for additional lessons, we have to ensure that there is balance in our delivery and that we do not thwart our students’ creativity by teaching just for the test; we also need to ensure that university administrators hold to their standards of matriculation.
Jamaica has outgrown the terrible arbiters by which we define success. The time has come for us to work diligently and creatively towards embracing the individuality of each child in our country and the whole human race.
- http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/03/30/grand-jury-indicts-about-3-dozen-educators-in-atlanta-public-schools-cheating/ [↩]
- St. Hilda’s and St. Andrew High [↩]
- http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20090414/news/news1.html [↩]
- cheating on an intimate partner [↩]
- A Jamaican RICO might be of use in getting rid of “the Gangs of Gordon House,” but that is another story. [↩]
- http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/08/10/01hall.h31.html?tkn=YTWF29Qub7LmdqoZijHL1NLhlIpU0uxGGhPP&cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS2 [↩]