Atlanta cheating scandal is huge

Cheating raised test scores at Atlanta schools over the last 10 years, concludes a state investigation. Under pressure to meet Superintendent Beverly Hall’s high academic goals, 44 of 58 schools investigated cheated on the state exam, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The cheating appears to predate No Child Left Behind.

Teachers and principals erased and corrected mistakes on students’ answer sheets.

Area superintendents silenced whistle-blowers and rewarded subordinates who met academic goals by any means possible.

Superintendent Beverly Hall and her top aides ignored, buried, destroyed or altered complaints about misconduct, claimed ignorance of wrongdoing and accused naysayers of failing to believe in poor children’s ability to learn.

Hall, who was named superintendent of the year in 2009, retired last month in the midst of the cheating investigation. She blamed low-level employees for cheating, saying the problem was not systematic.

Some district employees got bonuses for raising test scores. Some teachers say they were threatened with losing their jobs if they didn’t go along.

At Venetian Hills, a group of teachers and administrators who dubbed themselves “the chosen ones” convened to change answers in the afternoons or during makeup testing days, investigators found. Principal Clarietta Davis, a testing coordinator told investigators, wore gloves while erasing to avoid leaving fingerprints on answer sheets.

. . . At Gideons Elementary, teachers sneaked tests off campus and held a weekend “changing party” at a teacher’s home in Douglas County to fix answers.

Cheating was “an open secret” at the school, the report said. The testing coordinator handed out answer-key transparencies to place over answer sheets so the job would go faster.

. . . At Kennedy Middle, children who couldn’t read not only passed the state reading test, but scored at the highest level possible. At Perkerson Elementary, a student sat under a desk, then randomly filled in answers and still passed.At East Lake Elementary, the principal and testing coordinator instructed teachers to arrange students’ seats so that the lower-performing children would receive easier versions of the Fifth Grade Writing Tests.

A school that cheated to meet its targets had to keep on cheating to meet higher targets. Meanwhile, students who needed extra help didn’t get it because their test scores showed they were doing well.

In 2010, as investigators zeroed in on schools with high wrong-to-right erasures, test scores dropped at many Atlanta schools.

Some district officials may face criminal charges.

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Comments

  1. CarolineSF says:

    Campbell’s law is an adage developed by Donald T. Campbell:[1]

    “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

    The social science principle of Campbell’s law is sometimes used to point out the negative consequences of high-stakes testing in U.S. classrooms.

    What Campbell also states in this principle is that “achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campbell%27s_law

    Also, consider that this wouldn’t even be about one educator’s trying to save his or her butt. When schools are likely to be closed or dismantled due to low test scores, the survival of the entire school community is at stake. Isn’t it inevitable that cheating would be the result?

    It’s the difference between “take this test to see how well you’re doing” and “if you don’t do well on this test you’ll be executed.” Cheating would be a perfectly rational response.

  2. So sad when educators put their interests before the interests of their students. But we should not be surprised. This has happened before (http://bit.ly/gsHb7L). At times it appears that the only ones who benefit from high stakes testing are the testing companies and the publishers of test prep materials.

  3. Stuart Buck says:

    When coaches lose too many games, their jobs are at stake too. Yet somehow the sports world has figured out various ways to crack down on cheating (maybe educators could learn a thing or two). Nor does anyone suggest that people just stop keeping track of winners and losers, based on the pathetic excuse that doing so only encourages cheating.

  4. Roger Sweeny says:

    CarolineSF is exactly right. Any sort of decision-making indicator in this business will be cheated on and ruined. So we must get rid of them. Right now, you can’t become a teacher without passing a teacher-training program. They should obviously all be abolished.

  5. Mark Roulo says:

    The specifics are new, but that there is cheating on these sorts of tests is *NOT* new.

    John Cannell hunted down nationwide cheating over 20 years ago … and after everyone got all hot and bothered about it … nothing fundamentally changed.

    He wrote a retrospective many years later that is available on-line (his original report is not):

    http://www.tegr.org/Review/Articles/vol1/Lake_Woebegon__Twenty_Years_Later_1_.htm

    The simplest conclusion is that collectively, we (teachers, parents, politicians, …) just don’t care about this cheating. It wouldn’t be all that difficult to make it much harder to cheat if we actually cared, but we don’t care so we don’t do anything.
    :-(

  6. rightwingnutjob says:

    I like waht you’re saying, caroline. The public shcools can’t be trusted with anything. You got them pegged. Get rid of all of them!!!!!!

  7. (Caroline): “Campbell’s law is an adage developed by Donald T. Campbell:[1]

    The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

    Someone at at the policy blog Samefacts called that Goodhart’s Law.
    This applies to any regulatory system and not just to “high-stakes” standardized tests. The stakes at issue include the $700 billion tax-funded K=PhD education subsidy and the futures of 50 million students nationwide. It will not matter whether your measure of “education” is pencil marks on a bubble-in test form, attendance records, or a majority vote of a tenure committee or your legislature. This relates to the phenomenon that economists call “regulatory capture”. Insiders have a stronger incentive to corrupt accountability mechanisms than citizens have to maintain them.
    Given the financial stakes at issue, internal accountability mechanisms will almost inevitably fail in the current legal environment of organized public sector employees and the policy which gives to schools operated by dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel an exclusive position in receipt of the taxpayers’ pre-college education subsidy.
    The most effective institutional accountability mechanism that humans have yet devised is the policy which gives to unhappy customers the power to take their business elsewhere. In the education industry this means tuition vouchers, tuition tax credits, charter schools, open enrollment across district lines, subsidized homeschooling, or (my preference) Parent Performance Contracting.

  8. Peace Corps says:

    I’m afraid that some schools are training students to cheat. Some scores for area schools just don’t match with abilities of the students. I had one student admit to me that a teacher helped his whole class when he was in the eighth grade. What a role model that teacher is! I have no way of knowing if it was just one teacher, or if it was the whole district.

    People that have something to gain or to loose should not be part of the process of testing.

  9. This cheating was due to both a corrupt system and to corrupt individuals. They took a variety of actions (correcting incorrect answers, giving kids the answers during the test, etc) to cheat the system and get favorable results for themselves. For doing this, almost none of them face criminal charges, or even penalties of any kind.

    How about three instances of cheating at test scores in any school over the course of the year and all staff must be fired and new staff hired? Maybe just the principle fired, since this is also an abject leadership failure? If you look at the way they studied this, it was easy to catch the cheaters, it was done en mass with scanners and software and statistical analysis. Why not check for cheating every time a batch of tests is processed?

    This will continue as long as there is absolutely no risk in doing it and no one is looking particularly hard for cheaters.

  10. CarolineSF says:

    All the snarky responses to my original post aside, I think the point is the perception that the risk of NOT cheating is higher than the risk of cheating.

    Stuart, your analogy would only apply if every team to which you refer was required to accept players who were assigned to the team by default whether or not they wanted to play the game, had any ability or talent at the game, had disabilities that interfered with their ability to play the game, etc. The coaches would perceive it as harmful to their own careers and self-interest but also to the players and the community if the team were disbanded; and the coaches and the team would be rewarded if they won. Some coaches would get far more hopelessly uncoordinated schlubs and “Intentional Non-Players” on their teams while others would get eager, talented athletes who were fit and ready to play. The ability to cheat would be pretty limited in these circumstances, but the motivation would be clear.

  11. georgelarson says:

    When people commit criminal acts even if it is to save their jobs they should be punished.

    “Cheating would be a perfectly rational response.” But it is not the response of a Professional and every teacher I have met insisted they were Professionals.

    Unfortunately while testing is needed it is being used as a weapon against everything connected to public education. Testing should be used to produce data that is used to manage schools better, train teachers better and to ultimately to improve student’s performance. Testing has become part of a bureaucratic process to close schools. It appears to me the teacher’s union controlled state legisltaures implemented these processes. We really don’t need more testing to determine which schools are failing.

    Some of you may have heard of W. Edwards Deming. Long ago I saw him on national television. A lot of people gave him credit for improving Japanese business management after WWII and he became a celebrity when it was feared that the Japanese would economically surpass the US.

    Deming’s Obligation of Management Number 8

    Drive Out Fear

    When I first read Deming I thought this was to encourage workers to show managers how management was making their jobs more difficult and less productive. It is clear that it should also include discouraging sabotage of management’s data collection.

    The funny thing is that because of the test scores people believed that Atlanta’s schools were good. Now do they believe otherwise? Are Atlanta’s Schools good or bad? Does anyone care?

  12. Mark Roulo says:

    How about three instances of cheating at test scores in any school over the course of the year and all staff must be fired and new staff hired?

    Or we could modify the tests and the test environment so that cheating was much harder.

    Schools do not give the SAT tests to their own students. Ditto for the APs. You take your drivers test at the DMV, not at the driver’s ed school.

    Separating the test and the test proctors from the schools and the teachers would be a very good first step.

    It won’t happen (probably because it would cost more than the current system).

  13. georgelarson says:

    random sampling would reduce the cost

  14. rightwingnutjob says:

    We see another example of Campbell’s Law in the story two down, “NJ Auditor: Free Lunch Errors Skew Aid.” Districts reported having more low-income students than they actually did because every person in the free and reduced-price lunch program meant more money ($4700-$5700) from the state.

    Does this mean that we should get rid of free and reduced-price school lunch programs?

  15. georgelarson says:

    No, but the districts or the parents should refund the money obtained fraudulantly. Perhaps the parents can be audited by the IRS for unreported income.

  16. Ah, the old “the kids we’re supposed to teach are just too stupid, which is why we’re so dishonest” excuse. If that works for you, fine, but it’s not clear why such people should ever be trusted with children in the first place. You’re unwittingly making a great argument for why people need the escape hatch of school choice.

  17. Mark: Huh? Schools give the SAT, ACT, and AP exams to their own students. I can’t proctor the my students’ AP, but I can the other two. Pay isn’t bad for a morning largely spent reading.

  18. Aside from the 187 district employees, the persons who were really cheated over the last 10 years were the students who were passed along from grade to grade without solid knowledge of material they should have learned.

    That’s the real crime, and it’s pathetic that the state of Georgia refuses to acknowledge it.

  19. Mark Roulo says:

    “Mark: Huh? Schools give the SAT, ACT, and AP exams to their own students.”

    I did not know this! Waaay back when I took the SAT it was at some random not-my-own school (early in the morning …). I didn’t take any AP tests, but am surprised that there isn’t any extra-school oversight.

    Okay, I take it back. Within K-12 there doesn’t seem to be any external oversight to these things.

    I hesitate to ask, but do you know if doctors/lawyers/pilots/accountants get tested by their own teachers, or are things like the BAR exam administered by external entities. I have always assumed that they had to be administered by someone other than the teachers …

  20. Well, I think there’s a difference between K-12 testing and what you mention — I don’t recall who proctored my Praxis, LSAT, GMAT, etc., but not anyone I knew. I did take my SAT at my own school in 1985/6. I do think College Board security is far better than state testing — everything has to be mailed off the same day and nobody sees it beforehand. The tests you mention are high stakes for the takers and security is important — if for nothing else than job prospects, ie. money. State testing is no-stakes for students — absolutely meaningless. I had a very competitive group this year and they were all vying with each other for perfect scores, but that’s unusual.

  21. Mark Roulo says:

    “Well, I think there’s a difference between K-12 testing and what you mention…”

    There *IS*, but it would still be nice to be able to collect high quality data about school/teaching/learning effectiveness. But you can’t do this when cheating is easy :-(

  22. banshee says:

    So the argument is that because there is an opportunity for fraud, teachers are expected to take it? No. Fraud is wrong. Teachers are not the only people who have to deal with the hand they’re dealt (and that’s not even strictly true; if they cannot do the job they have no business staying in it. ) I’m sick of the EXCUSES (and that is all they are) some teachers use to fraudulently conceal their FAILURE. The US is already behind the rest of the developed world in math. How low are our standards? How long will we accept failure by some of our teachers?
    No wonder kids are so okay with cheating. The guilty should be fired, and controls in place so that teachers don’t get custody of completed exams. It can be done. It should be done. We need to know just how badly our kids are doing.

  23. banshee says:

    Mark, when I took the Bar Exam in 1983, we took it en masse in what is now the Jacob Javitz Convention Center, away from any law school, and there were dozens of proctors that nobody knew. I took the CPA exam last year; it is administered at small Prometric Testing Centers, tiny labs of 30 or so computers where everyone is watched by Prometric employees on closed circuit TV. I had to look up my purse and take one of their pencils and their scrap paper into the lab. The exam was accessed with my unique passcode and submitted digitally. Oh, and I had to show photo ID.

  24. Michael E. Lopez says:

    How about we establish state testing centers, with FULL TIME staff during the summer, and mandate that students check in and test at their grade level prior to enrolling in public school?

  25. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I should mention that this is the putting forth of an idea — not an endorsement of it.

  26. I just want to point out that all the districts in Georgia do similar testing, and when various organizations looked for evidence of cheating, primarily by looking at statistically improbably rates of wrong to right erasures, there wasn’t a big statewide problem. There were some flagged classrooms around the state, but nothing like the pervasive problems in Atlanta Public Schools.

    The tests themselves may created pressures and incentives to cheat, but most educators in Georgia seem to have done what they were supposed to do and conducted themselves professionally, despite proctoring their own students. Conclusions can be reached, I think, about the culture at APS, but to generalize about teachers at large or about high stakes testing seems unsupported by the Georgia data.

    I think there are ways to reduced opportunities for cheating, like not having teachers proctor their own students, but in my experience in the absence of a corrupt and deranged school system*, most teachers in Georgia conduct themselves ethically. I’d go so far to say that most teachers I know actually like trying to teach well to improve student performance and, as long as administrators have realistic expectations about scores based on the level that students come in on, don’t mind the idea of testing.

    *APS has had problems with corruption and mismanagement at various levels before, so a scandal doesn’t really surprise anyone familiar with APS; the scale, however, was remarkable.

  27. Schools give the SAT, ACT, and AP exams to their own students. I can’t proctor the my students’ AP, but I can the other two.

    This is flatly untrue. You can sign up to be a proctor. You have no idea who will be in your room. SAT sites handle students from multiple schools–if your school doesn’t host SATs, then you won’t be able to proctor any of your students at all. To say nothing of the fact that you are not personally invested in your students’ SAT or ACT scores, but are invested in your students’ AP scores–which is why you are not ever allowed to proctor those.

    As opposed to the CSTs, where you would be giving a test in the subject you teach to the students you teach. Yeah, no difference there.

    Jesus, what tripe.

    Mark, you were correct the first time, and shame on you for thinking Linda ever knows what she is talking about.

  28. If some of the kids you teach happened to be assigned to a room in which you were a proctor, I don’t think there are any SAT rules against it. Particularly because the SAT date are all Saturdays, I think, except for some sabbath accommodations, I don’t see it ever happening in any larger numbers, but I suppose it could. Lightly Seasoned wasn’t incorrect. At my school, teachers give the PSAT to their own students every year, for whatever that’s worth.

    But Cal’s probably correct that SAT/PSAT results are never going to seem high stakes for any one teacher.

  29. Honestly, in a non-corrupt system in which people behave professionally, there wouldn’t have to be much difference in how College Board tests are given and how state tests are given. Teachers could swap out grades and subjects for the state tests just as AP teachers can proctor other subject area tests.

  30. Lightly Seasoned wasn’t incorrect.

    She did not say that it was theoretically possible that a teacher could have a second job as an SAT proctor and, in that capacity, act as proctor to a few of her students. She said, “Schools give the SAT, ACT, and AP exams to their own students.” Except for the AP–where, as she notes, she can *not* give the test to her own kids–the schools do not host SAT/ACT exclusively for their own students. One or two schools in a district host the SAT. Most students don’t have the option of taking the SAT at their school; those whose schools are hosting it are not required to take the test at that site.

    It’s just irritating; Mark Roulo made what was actually a pretty good suggestion, and I don’t like to see ignorance shutting things down. Linda knows better; she just wants to argue that TESTING IS BAD so basically misrepresents in order to shut down anything outside that party line.

  31. NDC: I think that’s a culture thing. In my district, folks are far, far more interested in the ACT/SAT results than AP. My program is relatively new and just starting to get noticed — there’s certainly no personal stakes involved for me — just the kids.

  32. Except for the AP–where, as she notes, she can *not* give the test to her own kids–the schools do not host SAT/ACT exclusively for their own students. One or two schools in a district host the SAT. Most students don’t have the option of taking the SAT at their school; those whose schools are hosting it are not required to take the test at that site.

    Perhaps that’s true in the cities. It’s certainly not true in rural areas.

  33. There is a section in the report entitled, “Why Cheating Occurred”

    - The targets set by the district were often unreasonable, especially given their cumulative effect over the years. Additionally, the administration put unreasonable pressure on teaches and principals to achieve targets;

    - A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation spread throughout the district; and,

    - Dr Hall and her administration emphasized test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics.”

    “What has become clear through our investigation is that ultimately, the data and meeting ‘targets’ by whatever means necessary, became more important than true academic progress” (p. 356).

    It was a leadership failure, where all dissension was crushed.

  34. Roger Sweeny says:

    How about we establish state testing centers, with FULL TIME staff during the summer, and mandate that students check in and test at their grade level prior to enrolling in public school?

    I think it’s a wonderful idea. Many, many, many students in high school are taking courses they simply can’t do well in because they don’t have the background skills or knowledge.

    However, I fear these “placement tests” would tell us things we really don’t want to hear–namely, that students haven’t learned nearly as much as their previous years’ grades indicate they have.

    We would then have a moral duty to fix things, which means fairly individualized remediation, or change to the earlier grades. Far easier to do what we do now: pretend we’re “differentiating instruction” and make the assessments easy enough that most anyone can pass.

  35. supersub says:

    plain and simple…if the tests will be used to evaluate teachers, then the tests should not be graded by the school. If the tests are actually issed to evaluate just students, gasp, then teachers can grade them.

  36. All of you are pretending to not notice the black elephant in the room. That’s the real problem.

  37. Stuart Buck says:

    Caroline, you said:

    “The coaches would perceive it as harmful to their own careers and self-interest but also to the players and the community if the team were disbanded; and the coaches and the team would be rewarded if they won.”

    But we’re talking about Atlanta here. If you read Ravitch’s book, she claims that Atlanta is an example of “positive accountability, where low scores trigger an effort to help the school” (p. 163).

    According to Ravitch, “The third example of positive accountability is Atlanta, where Superintendent Beverly Hall established a series of interventions to help struggling schools. The district, whose students are 91 percent African American and Hispanic and three-quarters low-income, was known for low performance before her arrival. But since her appointment in 1999, Atlanta’s public schools have steadily improved. She raised the quality of the professional staff by careful hiring, ‘meaningful evaluations, and consistent job-embedded professional development.’” (pp. 164-65).

    Oops. (Not that it’s any more skewed or uninformed than everything else that Ravitch writes . . . .)

  38. CarolineSF says:

    My copy of Ravitch’s book is lent out, but I’ll trust that you’re quoting accurately, Stuart.

    So Ravitch too was fooled by the increased test scores rather than assuming cheating was going on. I don’t think that’s do damning (or skewed or uninformed either). So were a lot of good people.

    That has nothing to do with my point.

    By the way, Paul Tough (formerly pretty much hoodwinked by the education “reformers” himself) hits back at the Ravitch Rage in Sunday’s New york Times Magazine. His point: No excuses means you too, corporate education “reformers”: http://tinyurl.com/42srl9m

  39. CarolineSF says:

    Also, by the way, the SAT has never been given at my kids’ high school; the same high schools around the Bay Area serve as the site every testing day. My kids have almost always taken SATs at a nearby Catholic high school. If you sign up early enough you can get a convenient location; if not you may wind up far away. It must only be in very small, remote towns that the system could confuse anyone into believing that schools offer the SAT to their own students.

    But the SAT and ACT are not high-stakes for the school or teachers; while it’s possible to learn the scores, there are no punishments or rewards attached.

    AP tests are another thing in that that’s how schools get onto Jay Mathews’ ridiculous and corrupt* Newsweek/Washington Post “best high schools” list. So there’s incentive for schools to push as many kids as possible to take as many AP tests as possible (which cost $86 each to take, so this gets complicated and/or expensive). BUT the scores on the AP tests don’t factor into the rankings, so there would be no incentive by the school itself to cheat; and they don’t affect teachers at all.

    *Corrupt because using the number of AP tests taken per student as THE criterion clearly promotes far more AP test-taking, and Newsweek/Washington Post own Kaplan, the test-prep powerhouse, which is obviously likely to benefit financially from far more AP test-taking. It’s a stake in the heart of any notion of journalistic ethics.

  40. It was a leadership failure, where all dissension was crushed.

    They didn’t have to do any crushing.

  41. Stuart Buck says:

    Caroline — here’s a line that you and Ravitch could use to spin the Atlanta situation: “If cheating was such a problem even in a city with positive accountability and no harsh school closings or punishments to worry about, think how much cheating is being incentivized elsewhere!”

  42. Caroline,

    Matthews changed the formula this year: http://www.newsweek.com/feature/2011/americas-best-high-schools.html

    ” each school’s score is comprised of six components: graduation rate (25%), college matriculation rate (25%), AP tests taken per graduate (25%), average SAT/ACT scores (10%), average AP/IB/AICE scores (10%), and AP courses offered (5%).”

    So while quality of results on the SAT and AP is only 20% of the formula, at least it’s figuring in now.

    Generally, I agree that it’d be much better to go to a system where teachers never proctored their own students test, but you have got to be careful about what you come up with to handle it. I don’t think most of us want to see testing become more expensive, and we probably have to be somewhat careful about not burdening poor kids with additional expenses in terms of transportation to testing centers, etc. I also wonder how much having strangers come into a class is going to freak out little kids. I have a tendency to think in terms of high school aged kids, but strange proctors for 1st graders might actually affect the kids’ performance.

  43. Caroline: I believe you about the Bay Area, but I assure you, I do not teach in a remote, rural town. I am in a very well established suburb of a major city. If our building runs out of space, the kids do take the tests at one of the other high schools in the area.

    I don’t think it would be terribly expensive to tighten up state testing. I’m not sure impartial proctors on that scale are reasonable for many districts, but simply shortening the time the tests are in the building would go a long way. If they’re shipped back out in a day, there isn’t much time to mess with them. Ours sit around the building for two or three weeks.

  44. I know that in Montgomery County, MD, at least in the elementary schools, the classroom teachers cannot proctor MSA tests of their own students. Teachers switch classrooms, such as third grade teachers proctor 5th grade. There can still be motivation for cheating since the whole school is being judged, but there is less chance of influencing the scores of your own grade. I’ve always had the impression that there are tight controls on the administration and handling of the testing materials, but I haven’t been personally involved in it.

  45. So while quality of results on the SAT and AP is only 20% of the formula, at least it’s figuring in now.

    That’s not Jay’s Index. Didn’t you notice his name wasn’t mentioned? His is at the Post.

  46. CarolineSF says:

    NDC and Cal, I noticed info that Jay’s (bull$#!% — sorry, Jay) index would now be just at the Post and not at Newsweek any longer. I gather that Newsweek has decided to do a separate one and hadn’t gotten more info than that, so thanks.

  47. Nope, Cal, I didn’t. Is there a story there that you know of?

    I think the new Newsweek one is an improvement, but I did kind of like what Matthew’s index was trying to do back when it was new, even though it was imperfect.