Editor's note: The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is president and founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
(CNN) -- The recent disclosure of test altering practices across Atlanta's public school system has turned the spotlight on a national crisis. Instances of grade changing and test tampering have also been reported across the country in cities such as Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia and Washington.
These revelations shake the very framework of civil rights initiatives dating back to Brown v. Board of Education. The needed focus on closing the achievement gap for the poor and students of color is giving way to reliance on test scores and metrics that often have little bearing on educational achievement.
The Obama administration's approach to public education, which has placed a higher value on competition for dollars rather than the premium of competence, has caused many educators to seek approval and high marks at any and all cost, no matter how immoral or illegal.
Sadly, these practices are becoming all too common.
Top-down polices such as the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration's Race to the Top have provided an incentive to manipulate test scores, deceptively report graduation rates and falsify actual student performance in our schools.
Noted educator and activist Dr. Pedro Noguera of New York University has said "NCLB was adopted into law in 2001. The fact that nearly every major city in the U.S. has dropout rates of 50 percent and higher is the clearest evidence that the policy has failed and a new approach is needed."
Yet, he adds, Race to the Top continues the core policies of NCLB. Instead, Noguera argues, NCLB should be scrapped altogether.
Emphasizing standardized testing to evaluate school progress has been roundly criticized by educators. Test scores are used to evaluate teacher performance and have served to make teachers an unfair target for the fundamental flaws in our education system. Many school reformers argue that good performance on testing does not necessarily reflect a higher quality education.
Schools that don't meet the NCLB/RTT test score standards can be denied federal funds or have sanctions imposed. Thus a "test trap" environment exists as schools are pressured to "teach to the test" at the expense of offering a broader learning curriculum, or even falsifying test scores to meet NCLB/RTT standards and avoid penalization.
Grade boosting is pervasive and undermines the integrity of teachers and administrators. It is unfair to cheat students, who deserve a quality education.
And of course changing students' grades is no substitute for real learning and objective evaluation of student performance.
Students should not be given A's or a passing grade unless they have earned it and shown mastery. Yet the practice is a national epidemic. I commend the sacrificial work of countless administrators and teachers who enter classrooms every day and accept the challenge of educating our children, in many instances in substandard schools and with little or no basic resources such as up-to-date books or computers in the classroom. Yet they use their skills and talents to produce against the odds without excuse.
Research has shown that schools, students and teachers in low-income communities and inner cities will be unfairly neglected in the competition to meet higher standards and the drive to impose accountability for students' standardized test results.
Already some advocates of government-financed vouchers to fund enrollment in private schools or charter schools that self-select their student body seem to aim at educating the few at the top. And the existing tax-based public school funding formula in place in many states undermines the principles of equal protection under the law and equal opportunity.
It is no secret that schools in the suburbs have far greater allocation of dollars per student than those schools in the inner cities, let alone schools in high-income neighborhoods having greater financial and educational resources than schools in poor neighborhoods in the same city.
Meanwhile, the achievement gap in America persists --our public education system is a two-track system: one track for the poor, with reduced life options and too often ending with jail, and the other track for young people headed to college.
The United States has slipped to 14th in the world in reading, math and science literacy , behind countries such as South Korea, Estonia and Iceland. As we continue to recover from one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression, preparing America's youth to compete in a global economy should be our top priority.
True educational excellence is not a race to the top at the expense of short-shrifting our most precious commodity, our youths. We should, as a nation, demand that competence, fairness and equity be the hallmark of our education system across the board. We should abandon the wrong-sighted notion that numbers and reports are the true means of assessing the value of education.
"Cooking the books" is fraudulent and a crime. It is wrong at every level. A thorough investigation must be conducted not only in Atlanta, but in other school districts that have been subject to similar pressures to perform in order to determine the depth of this problem.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.