This week, investigators reported that close to 200 Atlanta school administrators, principals and teachers had changed children’s test scores on Georgia’s standardized tests in order to meet requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act and other school standards.
A 2009 investigation, which included 2,100 interviews and a review of 800,000 documents, showed that 44 out of 56 schools in Atlanta cheated on the tests. Seven teachers admitted to changing grades, and it was widely reported that some teachers even wore gloves to make sure their finger prints could not be traced and held parties where they would get together to alter grades.
The fraud became apparent when the test scores of students retested under strict security to remove the possibility of staff tampering, dropped substantially.
In 2010, 70.2 percent of students at Parks Middle School, which had the highest instance of grade tampering, passed initially. When retested, however, less than half of eighth-graders passed the math portion of the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. Pass rates on one math test dropped from 83 percent to 60 percent at another school suspected of cheating, and from 55.5 to 31.8 percent pass rate at another suspect school.
The school system’s then-superintendent, Beverly Hall, said in a statement released through her attorney that she knew nothing of the cheating.
“Apparently, not one of the 82 persons who allegedly ‘confessed’ to cheating told the investigators that Dr. Hall at any time instructed, encouraged or condoned cheating,” said attorney Richard Deane in a statement. “The report’s conclusion that Dr. Hall actually knew of any such cheating is based entirely on supposition. The further conclusion that Dr. Hall ‘should have known’ rests on negative inferences from selective, circumstantial evidence.”
Notwithstanding, many Atlanta journalists have said that by highlighting and praising principals like Park Middle School’s Christopher Waller, Hall fostered and cultivated an environment that encouraged tampering of test scores.
“Hall made sure that everyone in the district was accountable to her, and that she was held accountable by no one, “ wrote Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist and blogger Jay Bookman. “The result was a school district in which reporting ever-higher test scores, regardless of how they were achieved, became more important than educating children.”
Atlanta is not unique. At least six states are investigating possible cheating on standardized tests, including Maryland, California, Florida and Ohio, the Detroit Free Press reported. USA Today reported in May that an investigation has been launched into evidence of high erasure marks on tests at schools that have shown substantial improvement. At the Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus in the District of Columbia, for example, test scores jumped from 10 percent of students being “proficient” or “advanced” in math to 58 percent only two years later. Similar gains were shown in reading.
All of the evidence of test tampering is calling into question whether the No Child Left Behind Act, enacted under President George W. Bush, is to blame.
President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have vowed to overhaul the law, which critics say put unreasonable pressure on schools to meet benchmarks or lose funding. Already, unless something changes, 82 percent of the nation’s public schools are on track to fail proficiency targets and risk losing their federal aid.
Duncan has pledged to propose a Plan B for states wanting to bypass the federal standards. However, U.S. Representative John Kline, R-Minnesota, chair of the House committee in charge of any revisions to No Child Left Behind, sent a letter to Duncan questioning the value of his overhaul efforts.
“While greater information in our education system is urgently needed, the Department’s proposal is cause for concern,” Kline wrote. “Issuing new demands in exchange for relief could result in greater regulations and confusion for schools and less transparency for parents.”
The clock is running out on plans to change the law, which requires 100 percent proficiency at all schools by 2014. The Atlanta case suggests, however, that demands to reach that goal may be stressing educators in Georgia and in other public school systems around the country.
Atlanta parent Monica Cooper told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that cheating robs students of knowing what they need to improve upon. “If they need help, they don’t need them changing the answers,” she said. “If they were wrong that is where they need help at.”
“Kids who fail the CRCT, which is our state curriculum test, they get extra help when they’re flagged by failing.” Heather Vogell of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution told PBS. “It’s actually an important thing, to fail, if you’re not ready — ready to meet the standards for your grade. And when somebody changes your answers, and nobody knows that you’re struggling as much as you are, you don’t get the extra help.”