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.

David Goldman / AP
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.

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

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.

At Parks Middle School, where investigators said some of the worst cheating took place, Principal Christopher Waller – one of the 35 people indicted, and formerly a principal lauded by Hall – allegedly organized “cheating parties” with teachers. Other defendants, say prosecutors, are guilty of lying to investigators, covering up wrongdoing, and retaliating against those who didn’t comply with their wishes.

“Atlanta was shocking because of the scale of it and the tragedy of it,” says Gregory Cizek, an education professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who studies cheating. “Some of the least able students were being told, ‘you’re doing just fine.’ That was a horrible tragedy in terms of the scale and the harm it did to kids’ education.”

Still, Atlanta was certainly not alone. The former El Paso superintendent was recently sent to prison for encouraging low-performing students to drop out. Ohio is currently investigating whether some schools intentionally “scrubbed” low-performing students from their rolls so their test scores didn’t count. And cheating was discovered in Washington, D.C., schools – also cited as models of turnaround. In an extensive 2011 USA Today investigation, reporters turned up multiple instances of extreme statistical anomalies and suspected cheating.

That such cheating exists, given the incentives in the system, is not particularly surprising, says Professor Cizek. “Every walk of life has incentives in place that corrupt behavior, and it would be shocking if they didn’t apply to the context of education,” he says. “It’s remarkable in education that so many people do play by the rules.”

That said, Cizek and others say it would be a shame if the lesson out of Atlanta is to discount standardized tests and accountability, given the valuable information that educators, parents, and students can get from them.

“It would be analogous to saying, we’ve discovered there’s voter fraud, so let’s get rid of elections,” Cizek says. “There’s always going to be a backlash, but by and large, [testing data] is high-quality information we can stand behind.”

Instead, he’d like to see a culture – starting with top leadership – that emphasizes professional integrity; a more varied system of accountability that uses multiple measures to gauge teachers’ progress, without focusing so narrowly on test scores; and more serious scrutiny on how tests are administered, to make cheating much tougher to do.

Already, he says, the big cheating scandals have caused districts around the country to get serious about that last point.

“Atlanta has caused every state and large district around the country to say we’re not doing enough to ensure the accuracy of test data,” he says.

Ms. Weingarten, like Cizek, notes that the vast majority of teachers are honest, and haven’t succumbed to pressures to cheat. But she also says that she hopes Atlanta and other scandals are “a clarion call for a new accountability system.”

The issue, she says, isn’t with the idea of accountability or even standardized tests – though she’d love to see tests that she believes are more aligned with problem solving, critical thinking, and other 21st century higher-order thinking skills – but with the unique power those test scores now have in many districts.

“This push to make [standardized tests] predominant in everything that’s done has run its course,” Weingarten says. “Hopefully this is the tipping point that says to policymakers what teachers and parents have understood: Of course we need accountability, and multiple measures of student success. Of course we need data to inform instruction. But this fixation on standardized tests as the be all and end all and arbiter of whether a child does well, a teacher stays employed, and a school stays open is crazy.”

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