Investigation Finds Suspicious Achievement in Schools Across the Nation

A new report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggests that many districts around the country are cheating on standardized test results.

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In the latest example of a newspaper challenging the education establishment on the issue of student achievement, an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reportedly found suspect test scores in public school districts across the country.

The AJC used open records requests to seek student test data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The suspicious test score patterns -- which alone is not evidence of cheating -- were found in 196 of the nation's 3,125 largest school districts.

The seven-month investigation, by the AJC and affiliated Cox newspapers, is already getting pushback from some researchers who question the methodology. But the reporters concluded the huge fluctuations in test scores in cities like Houston and Los Angeles mirror the patterns found in the Atlanta public schools where cheating was determined to have been widespread.

A Georgia investigation into those rapid gains in scores, triggered in large part by the AJC's reporting in 2008 and 2009, found nearly 200 educators -- teachers, principals and regional superintendents -- colluded to falsify student achievement on statewide tests. The fallout has been significant, and led to the ouster of Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall.

The AJC's latest findings "are concerning," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an emailed statement to the newspaper. "States, districts, schools and testing companies should have sensible safeguards in place to ensure tests accurately reflect student learning."

According to the AJC, "Overall, 196 of the nation's 3,125 largest school districts had enough suspect tests that the odds of the results occurring by chance alone were worse than one in 1,000 ... For 33 of those districts, the odds were worse than one in a million."

But Gary Miron, an education professor and researcher at Western Michigan University, wrote in an opinion piece that the AJC's methodology was flawed, and that "the resulting news story appears to be intended to be alarmist, implying that cheating is rampant in our schools."

Among Miron's concerns, published in the Washington Post's Answer Sheet education blog, was that the investigation did not take into account the impact of high rates of student transiency on achievement. Charter schools represented a high proportion of the schools with alleged test anomalies, and they also have a disproportionate number of students moving in and out over the course of an academic year, Miron said.

The data used for the AJC analysis also stops at the school level, rather than going all the way down to the individual student level. That makes it impossible to know whether a suspicious results, such as a sudden increase in performance followed by a steep drop-off in scores the following year, actually involved the same group of students, Miron said. (The AJC has since responded to Miron's criticism, pointing out that many urban districts with high transiency rates did not also have testing anomalies.)

Gary Phillips, a vice president and chief scientist for the nonprofit American Institutes for Research and the newspaper's advisor for its methodology, told the AJC that "extreme" changes in test scores are like medical tests: "When you find something, you're supposed to go to the doctor and follow up with a more detailed diagnostic process."

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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