The Most Important Advocate: What Parents Should Take Away From the Atlanta Test Cheating Scandal

The words stung—the action as devastating as a Mike Tyson roundhouse. The guidance counselor, charged with gathering up official transcripts and recommendations for the scholarship application I was submitting, insisted that because she didn’t think my grades and SAT scores were good enough to win, she couldn’t be bothered with photocopies and praises. That I was a straight-A student who ranked 20th out of a senior class of more than 600 was of no consequence to her. The local community college. That, she made clear, was where I belonged.

I had bigger ambitions, though. Bigger than community college. Bigger than the small Long Island town where I grew up. Bigger, obviously, than what that guidance counselor envisioned for me.

Still, I couldn’t count on my parents to explain this to her. In the minds of my working class mom and dad, who had little money and less education, the sole stretch between Suffolk Community College and Yale was the mileage between their physical locations. And if the teachers and counselors, whom my parents trusted like they did their doctors, said I should take whatever class and participate in whatever extracurricular activity and go to whatever college, well, who were they to argue? Those people up at the school taught physics and algebra and got kids to college, for goodness sake. Surely, they knew what they were talking about.

A few weeks later, that same counselor refused to release documents I needed for a second scholarship for which I wanted to apply, an action that moved me to put in a teary collect phone call to my mom. I begged her to step in. She did. And, after a closed-door meeting with the principal, she left not only with my transcripts, but the cash she needed to send in my application via overnight mail.

I won that scholarship.

And we learned a valuable lesson—both my mother and me. For her, the lesson was in the power of speaking up on her child’s behalf. For me, it was learning that it’s never a good idea to leave the educational destiny of my children solely to the teachers—that as a parent, it is my duty to watch, listen, ask questions, work the system and speak up for my kids.

Now that I’m a mother and I’ve spent a few years sitting in the little chairs at parent/teacher conferences and room mom’d my way through five of Mari’s six years in school and all four of Lila’s, I recognize that not all parents think this way. That for every day I’ve spent in the classroom, getting to know the teachers and the principal and, most importantly, letting everyone within earshot know that my girls are brilliant and willing and able to learn and I expect nothing but the best for them, there are 10 parents who barely pay attention to their children’s homework, never come to parent/teacher conferences, and put in the absolute minimum when it comes to volunteering in their children’s classrooms.

I’m not going to lie—I’ve stood in judgment of those parents. Like, what does it take to check a third grader’s homework? Or donate some chips to the class party? Or talk to the teacher about what the standardized test scores mean for your kid—before critical decisions are made about your child’s future? I get it: parents are working/inundated/intimidated. But shouldn’t participating in the education of your child be at the top of the list of parental priorities? Eat, exercise, sleep and learn. That’s what kids do. That’s what we parents are supposed to help them do.

This has certainly been on my mind lately, as details of a huge standardized test score scandal sweeps through the Atlanta Public School system. A state report revealed that almost 200 teachers in dozens of schools throughout the huge district have been giving answers to students and changing answers for them, too, on the CRCT tests for years. Teachers and principals implicated in the scandal say they did it to protect their jobs; passing CRCT scores meant students got promoted to the next grade, which meant the kids were learning, which meant the teachers were doing a good job teaching them and being rewarded for their efforts. But while the teachers who cheated were winning, it was the students, ultimately, who lost. And that is the shame of it all.

Of all the coverage I’ve read on the scandal, the quote that stood out to me was from one teacher explaining why she participated: “I had to give them [students] the answers, those kids were dumb as hell.”

As a mother, that hurt me to my core. Because this woman was in charge of those babies. And thought nothing more of them than that they were unteachable idiots who didn’t deserve to be taught.

I’d like to think that my mom Spidey sense would have sniffed this woman out—that I would have instinctively known this woman meant to do my kid harm and that something wasn’t right if my child was coming home with failing grades but passing the CRCT with flying colors.

This is what parents do. You pay attention and you stand up for your kid.

I talked about this with my friend Gretchen, a former middle school teacher who, as an instructor at a local university, readies college students for elementary classrooms, and she made a salient point: for all-too-many poor urban and rural parents, teachers, like doctors, are gods. You don’t question them. You do as they tell you. And when the bill—or, in the case of your child/student, a report card—comes, you put it in the pile and deal with it when you can, if and when you have the means to deal with it.

And I get that. I do. Because I came from a home with parents who didn’t understand algebra and physics and biology, who knew nothing about personal essays and college applications, who didn’t know the difference between Suffolk Community College and Yale. Who simply trusted the teachers and the counselors to have their child’s best interests in mind.

Well, not all of them do.

And while there should be shame for those teachers, I really wish that the parents of the students had been paying closer attention to what those teachers were doing to their babies. You don’t need to know algebra to do this simple math: you can’t fail 3rd grade reading and arithmetic, but pass standardized reading and math tests with flying colors. I guess wishful thinking would have you believe that maybe some brilliance snuck into your kid’s head the night before the standardized tests, even though she’d consistently done poorly on classroom tests throughout the year. But reality should tell you this simply is not likely.

My gut tells me that someone should have caught this long before the state of Georgia did. I wish it were the parents.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Wow what a strong post. You know, when I was in highschool I was clueless. I had no idea what college was about and I would have listened to WHATEVER the guidance counselor had told me because I didn’t know any better. And for you at a young age to know that ‘something wasn’t right’ when your GC was telling you to goto COMMUNITY college despite your grades and scores is more than I would have ever known.

    I was taught to listen to grownups, respect grownups, and they had the final word. It wasn’t until now that I realize that most grownups don’t know what the heck they’re doing, nor do they have the best interest of anyone, EVEN themselves.

    • Denene@MyBrownBaby

      I was raised the same way—respect grownups, give them the final word. I don’t know what got into me when that whole scholarship debacle went down; I think it was more desperation. I knew I couldn’t go to college if i didn’t have a scholarship, and even though I knew only a little bit about college, I knew, at least, that if I wanted to study communications, Suffolk Community College wasn’t going to cut it. What my mother did give me was a voice—HER voice. It was she who walked into that principal’s office and demanded my transcripts. And you’re right: we grownups DON’T know what the heck we’re doing! LOL! But we can try, with each lesson, to be a little bit better. At least this is what I strive for…

  2. The testing scandal erupted right after I left Atlanta. when my former colleagues in the nonprofit and education sectors blew up my phone to discuss it, I told them that I was shocked but not surprised. In my 10 years working at various Atlanta youth organizations and in partnership with APS I saw parents who ran the spectrum from involved to MIA. But the one thing that always distressed me most was the pervasive low expectations of among many teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and even my co-workers. During one interview at a prominent nonprofit for a college bound director position, I was told that my expectations for Atlanta youth were too high. I withdrew my application. Luckily I found a program that gave me the reigns to raise the bar and work with parents. This year I received graduation announcements from Emory, GSU, Hampton, and UF (to name a few). Yes, parents need to be involved but something needs to be done to change the professional culture in the school system. Even engaged parents sometimes feel like it’s an uphill battle when it should be about what’s in the best interest of students.

    • Denene@MyBrownBaby

      Amen, Teresha! Absolutely agree with everything you said. My argument is that as parents, it’s our responsibility (along with a myriad of others) to demand teachers change those low expectations. If we’re not engaged, we’re not questioning, we’re not speaking up when we see the disparities, then we’re giving those teachers license to have low expectations of our kids.

      • Barbara Soloski Albin

        It is so importat that the teachers and administrative staff at the school know that your child has an involved and caring parent (s). If you can volunteer in the school, do. If you can’t volunteer in the school because of the many reasons, send a letter to the teacher, letting her or him know that although you can not volunteer, you would be happy to do anything that can be done at home. This is good for elementary school. I had a teacher friend who told me that every year she would send a note to the new teacher introducing herself and letting the teacher know that she would be available if and when the teacher needed help. She felt this way she did not bombard a busy teacher at the start of the school year when all the other parents were doing the same. Librarians in most school welcome help, all the way through high school.

  3. This stood out to me: “…for all-too-many poor urban and rural parents, teachers, like doctors, are gods. You dont question them. You do as they tell you. ”

    I feel like this teaching is still with me (and at times, holding me back) to this day! My parents always had faith in me, but they never questioned my teachers. Luckily, I had good ones but my brothers were not so lucky and have struggled since they graduated from college because they were encouraged to “pick a trade” and not pursue higher education! I say again I was lucky! But, watching my parents revere my teachers/doctors/etc and being told to respect adults above all is now one of my biggest challenges professionally (i’m at the end of a engineering PhD program). Where my peers are able to speak up and challenge the leaders in our field (with respect, not in a rude way) I have a hard time challenging “authority”. We have a minority group of black and latin women who get together and they all admit to having a similar problem. Be clear, we are powerful, knowledgeable women who LOVE to talk but we clam up more than some of our peers who weren’t raised with the same reverence of authority.

    I worry about being a champion for my future kids…and myself because of the way I was raised. This was a great post, and a great example about why it’s so important to speak up and be involved in general with anything you are passionate about (in this case your children’s education).

  4. Barbara Soloski Albin

    One of the most important things you can do for your child is to be an advocate with the school system. Many parents are introduced to this roll early on because of a child with special needs. You can imagine what it is like to stand up for your child in a system that is over-burdened in general. I can not agree with you more, as I also taught art in the school system and saw so many children whose parents never came to an open house, or teacher talks, or checked to see if the child’s homework was done, or even done correctly. I could go on, but I know you and the other parents on this site have seen all of this. You should be proud of your mother, as I am proud of my mother because she had to advocate for my brother with the school system, that when my child had medical issues, I was ready to do the same for him. As my husband was not always able to attend meetings ( a little thing called work), it was up to me to be strong, sometimes I wonder how I managed, but I did, even filing actions against LAUSD for civil rights violations. Sometimes it would be me and a room full of “suits” from the district offices, but I stood strong. I know my son appreciates what I did for him, please don’t think that I babied him, I just wanted him to have an even chance and be “safe” from harm. To this day, I advise parents when asked on how to deal appropriately with the school system.

  5. I became a school counselor, precisely because of a similar experience. In my case, the school representative told me she didn’t want me to be “too challenged” and denied me access to any advanced classes my first year in high school. I remember feeling helpless and my mom relied on the school to do what was best for me.

    Schools are communities and like any community they require the active involvement of all stakeholders to truly flourish.

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