America's biggest teacher and principal cheating scandal unfolds in Atlanta
At least 178 teachers and principals in Atlanta Public Schools cheated to raise student scores on high-stakes standardized tests, according to a report from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
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Investigations by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) and state investigators found a pattern consistent with other cheating scandals: a spike in test scores in one critical grade would be followed by an equally dramatic drop the next year. A USA Today investigation in March found that erasure data in six states and the District of Columbia showed these "abnormal patterns," according to testing expert Thomas Haladyna at Arizona State University.Skip to next paragraph
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The Atlanta testing allegations led to the first major law enforcement investigation of teacher cheating. Scandals in other states have typically been investigated by state officials. In response to recent teacher cheating allegations in Baltimore, Michael Sarbanes, the district's community engagement director, told District Management Journal, an industry publication for school administrators, that manipulating a test is "inherent in human nature, [although] we think people who do that are outliers."
The high stakes for teachers
Ten states now use test scores as the main criterion in teacher evaluations. Other states reward high-scoring teachers with up to $25,000 bonuses – while low scores could result in principals losing their jobs or entire schools closing. Even as the number of scandals grows, experts say it remains fairly easy for teachers and principals to get away with ethical lapses.
"I think the broadest issue in the [Atlanta scandal] raises is why many school districts and states continue to have high-stakes testing without rigorous auditing or security procedures," says Brian Jacob, director of the Center on Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan. "In some sense, this is one of the least worrisome problems in public education, because it's fairly easy to fix. The more difficult and troubling behavior would be teaching to the test, which we think of as a lesser form of test manipulation, but which is much harder to detect, and could warp the education process in ways that we wouldn't like."
In response to cheating scandals, some states and school districts have instituted tougher test-auditing standards, employing software that analyzes erasure rates and patterns. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is reforming NCLB to reduce pressure on teachers and principals. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in June that NCLB “is creating a slow-motion train wreck for children, parents, and teachers.” On the other hand, an Obama administration proposal – to pay bonuses to teachers who improve test scores in their classes – may shift the stakes without lowering them.
"The [Atlanta] teachers, principals and administrators wanted to prove that the faith of the Broad and Gates Foundations and the Chamber of Commerce in the district was not misplaced and that APS could rewrite the script of urban education in America and provide a happy, or at least a happier, ending for its students," writes the AJC's education columnist, Maureen Downey.
"And that’s what ought to alarm us," adds Ms. Downey, "that these professionals ultimately felt their students could not even pass basic competency tests, despite targeted school improvement plans, proven reforms, and state-of-the-art teacher training."