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In Atlanta cheating scandal, one culprit may be standardized testing

Some educators say the Atlanta cheating scandal is a warning sign of the dangers and perverse incentives that can result from a policy that stakes so much on standardized testing results.

By Staff writer / April 2, 2013

Photos of some of the 35 defendants in Atlanta's school cheating scandal decorate a board at the Fulton County Jail, April 2 in Atlanta. The defendants are named in a 65-count indictment that alleges a broad conspiracy involving cheating on standardized tests in Atlanta Public Schools. All 35 defendants must turn themselves in Tuesday.

David Goldman / AP

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Boulder, Colo.

Former Atlanta educators and administrators are turning themselves in to authorities Tuesday after being indicted last week in a widespread cheating scandal.

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In all, 35 teachers, principals, and administrators were named in the 65-count indictment, mostly under racketeering charges, which painted a broad portrait of corruption, cheating, and retaliation against educators who refused to participate or were whistle-blowers.

The 35 defendants, which include former Atlanta schools superintendent Beverly Hall, “conspired to either cheat, conceal cheating or retaliate against whistleblowers in an effort to bolster CRCT [state test] scores for the benefit of financial rewards associated with high test scores,” prosecutors said in a written statement.

The indictments, and the images of former teachers and principals turning themselves in to jail by Tuesday, bring to a head one of the biggest cheating scandals in recent education history, since it first began to emerge three years ago.

But Atlanta is certainly not the only district or school that has been tainted by cheating. And some educators say it serves as a stark warning sign of the dangers and perverse incentives that can result from a policy regime that stakes so much on standardized testing results.

“This says that something about our incentive system and our accountability system is way off,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“Standardized testing should play a role, but it has now become the predominant, and some would say the only, factor in assessing whether schools are successful, whether teachers are successful, and whether students are successful,” she says.

“Hopefully, this is now pulling the curtain away from what teachers and parents have been saying for two or three years now, which is that we are fixating on testing, as opposed to being fixated on teaching and learning.”

The scandal in Atlanta has gained particular attention since it seems to have been so widespread, and to have emanated from the very top, where Dr. Hall, the former superintendent, allegedly governed by fear and pushed principals to deliver results by any means necessary. During the decade she led the district, she replaced 90 percent of the principals, and focused unrelentingly on test scores.

The seeming turnaround that those scores saw brought her significant accolades and financial rewards. In 2009 she was named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators, whose director said that Hall had “turned Atlanta into a model of urban school reform.” Atlanta was often cited as a success story by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The story uncovered by Georgia’s investigation into whether there had been cheating – certainly one of the best-funded and most extensive investigations to date, with two special prosecutors appointed by Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue – showed a different picture.

Using whistleblowers and hidden wires, investigators uncovered a widespread system of corruption in which many teachers would allegedly gather in rooms during testing weeks to erase incorrect answers and replace them with correct ones.

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