Did High-Stakes Testing Cause the Atlanta Schools Cheating Scandal?

35 school district employees, including the former superintendent, face jail time and heavy fines for allegedly falsifying student answers on statewide standardized tests.

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Former Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Beverly Hall, at center (David Goldman/AP)

The details of the indictment are stunning -- teachers and school administrators allegedly engaged in a vast conspiracy, all for the sake of making Atlanta's students appear to be thriving instead of flailing.

Nearly three dozen Atlanta Public Schools employees -- ranging all the way up from classroom teachers to central office administrators to former Superintendent Beverly Hall -- face stiff fines and jail time over allegations that they changed students' answer sheets on high-stakes statewide exams. The indictment has 65 counts, including racketeering, false statements and writings, and influencing witnesses.

Some of the most damning charges are laid at the feet of 66-year-old Hall, a former national Superintendent of the Year, who is alleged to have fostered a work environment where dishonesty was rewarded. While the legal system does its work, some observers question whether the high-stakes, high-pressure emphasis on testing in the nation's public schools helped create an environment where cheating was not only rampant but inevitable.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is reporting the heck out of this new development, which is not surprising given that it was the newspaper's dogged "Cheating Our Children" investigative series that eventually led to this week's indictments of Hall and 34 other district employees. (You can read my posts on the AJ-C investigation, including the controversy it sparked in districts nationwide, here, here, and here.)

From the AJ-C this week:

According to the criminal indictment, Hall "publicly misrepresented the academic performance of schools throughout APS." Pressuring subordinates to produce targeted scores, the indictment said, "created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students' education."

"Not only were the children deprived, a lot of teachers were forced into cheating, forced into criminal acts," former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers, who investigated the cheating allegations, told CNN. "Now, granted, they did wrong, but a lot of them did this to protect jobs."

There's been some criticism of the scope of the charges filed, as the AJ-C's education blogger Maureen Downey pointed out, sharing a piece written by attorney-turned-Oglethorpe University President Lawrence Schall. He suggests the pressure of the high-stakes tests were a factor, and questions whether Hall's actions rose to the level of racketeering.

"I sure hope that if Dr. Hall is convicted, it is for something other than being a demanding, even an overly demanding, boss," Schall wrote.

On Tuesday I spoke with Andy Porter, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, who has a unique perspective on the cheating scandal. Three years ago, Porter was hired by the Atlanta Education Fund, a nonprofit group focused on boosting student achievement in that city, to review the district's test scores. He submitted his findings, which largely validated the AJ-C's reporting, but the organization took no action.

When I asked Porter what the odds were that the sizable test score gains at the suspect Atlanta schools occurred legitimately without adult intervention, he didn't mince words: "Slightly greater than a snowball's chance in hell."

While the Atlanta investigation focused heavily on erasure analysis (tracking how often the wrong answers were erased and replaced with the correct ones), there are plenty of other ways districts can cheat, according to FairTest, a national advocacy group. Educators can "skim" the student population by discouraging students who are likely to be poor test-takers from enrolling; report low-scoring students as absent so that their answer sheets don't have to be turned in; and even encourage teachers to look at the test questions ahead of time so they can tailor their instruction accordingly.

There's little question that the stakes have increased enormously for students, teachers, schools, and districts. And there's growing frustration among educators, students and parents at what's seen as an over-reliance on testing in public schools, particularly the time and money spent on preparing for and administering the exams. At the same time, it's important to note that while cheating scandals are grabbing headlines, they likely represent only a small fraction of the nation's public schools.

However, it's clear that the pressure is taking a toll. For teachers, student test scores are often now a factor in their performance evaluations. And schools that fail to demonstrate adequate achievement face a host of sanctions triggered by state and federal accountability measures.

So how much weight is too much to assign to one measure of accountability? Is it reasonable to blame the assessment process, rather than how individuals choose to respond to those pressures? Does cheating really have to be an unavoidable byproduct of raised expectations? To be sure, as the details of the indictments in Atlanta unfold, we should expect questions like those to at least be asked -- if not answered.


This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

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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