Fallout from Atlanta Schools Cheating Frightens Other Districts

The spotlight may be on Georgia, but are other school districts actually paying attention?

By Julianne Hing Jul 14, 2011

As the Atlanta Public Schools’ devastating cheating scandal reverberates around the country, the district has responded to demands for accountability by removing top officials. This week four district superintendents were replaced and the school board chairman Khaatim El resigned, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

But such staffing changes are only the beginning. The fallout from the widespread scandal, where 178 teachers and 38 principals were implicated in a years long cheating operation on state standardized tests at nearly 80 percent of schools that the Georgia Bureau of Investigations examined, will likely continue for a long while.

This week, the former APS superintendent Beverly Hall, who resigned last year when the staggering breadth of the cheating scandal had not yet been confirmed by the GBI, told Atlanta’s WXIA-TV that she "knew absolutely nothing" of the cheating scandal that took place under her watch.

The GBI report says otherwise. According to the state investigation, which Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal called for last year after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution uncovered testing irregularities on the state standards test that suggested a widespread culture of test score cheating was taking place, says that Hall and other senior officials demanded that schools meet standardized test score goals by any means necessary, even to the exclusion of ethics. Teachers, counselors and staff were forced to participate in a culture of cheating by gathering after school or on weekends to change answers on students’ tests, or by walking around a classroom and suggesting that students reexamine their responses to questions, the report found. The report also found that Hall and other officials lied to investigators, and ordered the alteration or destruction of documents and drafts of prior investigations.

In the same period of time that Atlanta Public Schools educators were lying and cheating their way through the state standards test, known as the CRCT, or the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, the district’s test scores soared, and the district became a star in the education reform world, and attracted millions of dollars of funding from corporate educational philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation. The CRCT was used to measure AYP, or the district’s adequate yearly progress. Under No Child Left Behind, a school’s very existence is tied to how well it performs on standardized tests. Meeting or missing AYP determines school funding and comes with sanctions–failing schools can be shut down and teachers’ jobs terminated if test score progress is not made. Testing critics have said such policy incentivizes cheating.

"Teachers and administrators in a setting like that feel set up for failure," said Bob Schaeffer, educational director of FairTest, an advocacy group that’s critical of high-stakes standardized testing. "They’re between a rock and a hard place, with … laws that have no relation to the educational reality kids face on the ground."

Between 2002 and 2009, the district also made the biggest gains in the nation in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as "the nation’s report card." The NAEP, which is administered by the federal government, is supposed to be much more difficult to cheat on because of the way the test is designed and used in policy decisions. No money and threat of sanctions are tied to the NAEP. However, APS’s cheating scandal has now called into question its stellar gains on the national test as well.

However, Atlanta is by no means the only district dealing with testing irregularities and reports of cheating scandals. Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles have all faced cheating scandals recently.

"What’s happening in Atlanta is not more serious than what’s happening in other school districts around the country," said Gregory Cizek, a professor of educational measurement at the University of North Carolina who studies testing and cheating. "It was just more thoroughly investigated."

Indeed, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s yearlong investigation was much more thorough and rare among the crop of cheating scandals that have been reported around the country in that investigators were able to get confessions from many educators. Eighty-two educators confessed to taking part in some cheating. And the cheating took many forms. Teachers, counselors and staff who tried to speak up about the cheating were silenced by administrators. The upside, Cizek suggested, was that what was happening in Georgia would lead to more scrutiny in other states.

"Probably the extent of the problem is not so different in Philadelphia, or in L.A. or D.C., than it is in Atlanta."

It’s something to which the Department of Education is very sensitive. Just days before the release of the GBI report, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent a letter to state superintendents around the country warning them about cheating on standardized tests.

"[T]he availability of valid, reliable, and timely data on student performance is essential for meaningful accountability and implementation of effective education reforms," Duncan wrote.

"For these reasons, I am writing to urge you to do everything you can to ensure the integrity of the data used to measure student achievement and ensure meaningful educational accountability in your State. As I’m sure you know, even the hint of testing irregularities and misconduct in the test administration process could call into question school reform efforts and undermine the State accountability systems that you have painstakingly built over the past decade."

But how seriously are other districts paying attention to Atlanta’s mess?

"Most states are burying their heads right now and hoping this blows over, but they’re no different from Georgia," Cizek warned. "They’re just not looking at it."