The Atlanta cheating scandal: How students were harmed

April 15, 2015 | By RALPH KASARDA

By now, most everyone has heard of the Atlanta Public School cheating scandal.  Thirty-five educators were indicted, twenty-one pleaded guilty, thirteen went to trial, eleven were convicted, and eight are going to prison.  Some of those convicted received severe prison sentences.  For instance, three former school administrators were given 20-year sentences with seven years to be served in prison.

The judge handing out the harsh sentences showed no mercy, and suggested the former educators deserved no sympathy because their actions victimized children.  Examining how students suffered as a result of having inflated test scores provides an example of  academic mismatch.

In the Atlanta cheating scandal, public school administrators and teachers conspired to artificially inflate student standardized test scores in order to deceive their supervisors into believing that poor performing schools were improving.  Job security, pride, and monetary bonuses were among their motives.

What made the judge presiding over the Atlanta cheating trial so angry was learning of children who were erroneously advanced into classes beyond their skill levels causing damage to their education and their futures.  That’s academic mismatch, and it occurs when a student is placed in a learning environment for which that student is not adequately prepared.  One parent testified that her daughter was placed into an accelerated math class which led to serious academic difficulty.  Many others dropped out of school and some even turned to crime.  The judge observed that some of these former students with falsified high test scores could not even read when they got to middle school.  Many of the victimized children came from poverty-stricken backgrounds in African American neighborhoods.

Academic mismatch is also an unfortunate consequence of racial preferences in college admissions.  When elite universities lower their academic standards to admit a more racially diverse student population, colleges one or two academic tiers below must do likewise.  This is because the minority students who might have attended those colleges based on their own academic record are instead attending the universities for which they are not academically prepared.  The problem is further passed down to the fourth and fifth tiers of universities, which respond similarly.  The result is a significant gap in academic credentials between minority and non-minority students at all levels.  Professor Richard Sander and legal journalist Stuart Taylor, Jr. wrote extensively on this subject in their book, Mismatch.  Professor Gail Heriot’s excellent article on mismatch is here.

Academic mismatch leads to serious harm.  Students who are academically mismatched tend to have lower grades and lower levels of academic self-confidence.  These problems lead to increased drop-out rates, poor self-esteem, and ruined professional ambitions.  That’s what happened to the school children who were victimized by the Atlanta Public School cheating scandal, and that’s what happens to many minority students who suffer from the unintended consequences of racial preferences.  That is one reason why PLF attorneys file briefs in court cases arguing against racial preferences in college admissions.