During the period in which the cheating took place—which could date back to 2001—Beverly Hall, who was superintendent at the time, implemented an array of school-reform strategies. She expanded charter schools, broke large high schools into small, themed academies, and raised millions of philanthropic dollars to support schools lacking in resources.
She also set up an aggressive system focused on accountability that revolved around state test scores. Her administration set academic targets for every school in the district, doled out bonuses when those benchmarks were met, and humiliated and intimidated educators when they failed to fulfill goals. Schools were expected to meet higher benchmarks each year; the administration would not accept failure. Hall was among the educators indicted in connection with the cheating scandal, but she died before she could stand trial. She later told investigators
that the federal No Child Left Behind law compelled her to set ambitious targets.
Slowly but surely, school leaders started to encourage cheating. "Teachers who conducted themselves ethically but failed to achieve required results were sanctioned," the state investigation found in 2011.
Early in her tenure, Hall also signed up Atlanta to pilot a new NAEP test designed for urban school districts. She later told investigators that she wanted external validation of the district's progress. "We wanted an independent third party," she said—an assessment that the district did not administer, grade, or proctor, and that students were randomly assigned to take.
The NAEP data shows mixed success. Atlanta fourth- and eighth-graders still score below the national average in math and reading. The achievement gap between black and white students remains as wide today as it was a decade ago. And score growth seems to have slowed in recent years.
But scores have been increasing in both subjects, and for both grades. Since 2003, the share of Atlanta fourth-graders scoring "basic" or higher on the reading exam rose from 37 to 57 percent. In math, the share rose from 50 to 72 percent.
When the cheating scandal broke, Hall and her backers pointed to the NAEP data as evidence that Atlanta had been doing something right. But the scandal didn't just discredit the city's state test scores; it cast doubt on students' improvements on the federal test, too.
Could Atlanta have cheated on the NAEP, as PolitiFact Georgia asked back in 2011? Schools could conceivably have given test administrators a list of students that didn't include low-performers. Carr says her office never noticed any strange shifts that would indicate that kind of manipulation was going on.
Changing demographics might also have affected scores. From 2000 to 2014, the share of white students in the district rose from 6 to 15 percent, while that of Hispanic students rose from 2 to 7 percent. But those shifts don't seem to explain the gains made by low-income and African American children. African American eighth-graders, for example, achieved a 21-point gain in math scores between 2003 and 2011.