STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A judge sent a message yesterday about school testing in Atlanta. Teachers received sentences ranging from home confinement to seven years in prison for cheating. When we called writer Rachel Aviv, I said that even for cheating, years in prison seemed harsh.
RACHEL AVIV: I'm glad to hear you say that 'cause I was surprised. I felt like I was witnessing a sense of triumph about their sentences. And to me, it seemed so sad that these teachers were being handcuffed.
INSKEEP: Writing for The New Yorker, Rachel Aviv interviewed some of the teachers involved.
AVIV: They got bonuses if they raised the test scores. But to me, it really never seemed to be an issue about money. One of the constant threats was that, A, teachers would lose their jobs if they didn't meet the targets and, B, that the schools would be closed down if they didn't meet their targets.
INSKEEP: When you say testing targets, let's remind people that under the federal No Child Left Behind law, there is a series of tests - annual tests - that schools take. Certain percentages of kids have to do well. And you wrote about a particular Atlanta school that was on the verge of failing for yet another year with disastrous consequences.
AVIV: And the year that they had failed for six years and when they were in their seventh year, instead of failing, the teachers went into a room and erased wrong answers and bubbled in the correct answers. And that year, the school, for the first time, met its targets.
The students described it as this incredible moment. I mean, one student told me that it felt like they had just won the Olympics, that people kept telling them, you know, you aren't good enough. And finally, they could go to school and hold their heads high. Some students were so proud of their school that they would tattoo the number of their school zone onto their arms. There was just this sense of triumph at that school.
INSKEEP: And what's even more remarkable about the story you tell in The New Yorker is the story of a star teacher, Damany Lewis. He didn't just go in and start changing the answers, as you describe. He crept over the line and then a little further over the line and then a little further.
AVIV: The principal kept telling him that the targets had to be met. And he kept telling the principal, well, there's no way those targets can be met. So it was this kind of subtle, implicit instruction. And so eventually, he got a razor. He slit open the booklet that had the test questions, and he used that booklet to prep his students. And suddenly they did far better than they had the previous year. So it began at the top. And by the time you're a teacher and the principal you respect is giving you this subtle but firm instruction, you stop kind of evaluating the ethics of what you are doing and so that the ends justify the means somehow.
INSKEEP: What are the implications for the federal No Child Left Behind law, which is being debated in Congress this very week that the sentences have come down?
AVIV: The Atlanta Public Schools District was a kind of triumph of No Child Left Behind as it was seen before the cheating came out. At Parks Middle School, the principal would write the targets, the test targets, on the floor in marker of each classroom. The way Damany Lewis described it to me was that he felt like he was part of a biological experiment in which the variables hadn't been controlled. And the variables he was referring to was the fact that so many of his students were living in poverty and were hungry and some of them had been raped and some of them were witnessing violence on the way to the school. And he felt like the law just was not taking into account these fundamental variables.
INSKEEP: Rachel Aviv is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Thanks very much.
AVIV: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.