Assessment Opinion

State Report Finds Egregious Cheating in Atlanta

By Justin Baeder — July 08, 2011 3 min read
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It’s DC all over again. EdWeek’s Christina Samuels writes on the District Dossier blog:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has published on its website the entire 400-page state report that alleges that principals and teachers changed student answers on state tests in order to get higher scores. ... The conclusion in the report is scathing and unequivocal: "Without question, cheating occurred in [Atlanta Public Schools] on the CRCT in 2009 and previous years. The erasure analysis is no longer a mere red flag, but is supported by confessions and other evidence of cheating in 78.6 percent of the elementary and middle schools we investigated." Read more

As in DC, much of the early evidence of cheating came from wrong-to-right erasure analysis, which suggested that certain schools’ results were statistically improbable. The state’s investigation uncovered a culture of pressure and cheating, the scope and nature of which are breathtaking:

The voluminous report names 178 educators, including 38 principals, as participants in cheating. More than 80 confessed. The investigators said they confirmed cheating in 44 of 56 schools they examined.

For the whole story, start with this AJC piece, then read this detailed article on perhaps the worst example of cheating, Parks Middle School. The state’s full report is available here.

The state investigation found cheating at Parks MS so rampant, so egregious that I am ashamed to refer to Christopher Waller as the school’s principal. Among the allegations: Waller opened sealed test booklets, copied them for teachers so they could prep their students, and had the shrink-wrap re-sealed. He circumvented the school’s test coordinator, who would countenance no cheating, by sending him out of the building at key times. And in perhaps the most blatant example, he had teachers simply erase wrong answers and fill in correct answers. (See the AJC story for details.)

All of this took place over a period of years, in which Waller was celebrated as a shining example of effective leadership by Supt. Beverly Hall. The scores continued to rise, and the school was the only one in the district to meet 100% of its performance targets. Waller received more than $17,000 in bonuses based on his school’s meteoric yet fabricated rise.

What kind of culture, and what kind of district leadership, would permit this to happen? I’ll tell you: A results-or-else culture. A results-only culture. A culture blind to the difficulties of improvement, and in denial about the speed at which dramatic improvement is possible. A culture gullible for any good news, and aggressive in its assertion that if it’s possible somewhere, it’s possible everywhere. A culture that says “Do what the winners are doing” without actually checking on what the so-called winners are doing.

I’d like to hear from Richard Elmore if he still thinks there are actual examples of large-scale systemic improvement. So far, NYC District 2, San Diego, DC, and Atlanta have all been knocked off their pedestals (the first two, as Diane Ravitch explains in her latest book, were artifacts of socioeconomic shifts). The heroes have fallen.

Superintendents must disabuse themselves of the delusion that they wear the Green Lantern’s ring; simply willing improvement to happen does not work. Nor does doggedly pursuing a smart-sounding theory of action without actually checking on how it’s working on the ground. Supt. Beverly Hall ignored complaints about cheating from teachers, who were the first to sound the alarm. They were silenced when they should have been given medals.

One could argue that the cheating was understandable, that there was no viable alternative for people caught in the middle, with careers and livelihoods on the line. I disagree. Integrity is always an option.

Ultimately, this work is about kids. Raising test scores is about demonstrably improving the life opportunities of students. When we can say with integrity that we’re doing that, we can be proud of our work. It’s possible for test scores to show something meaningful.

But when improvement is nothing more than out-and-out cheating—the kind of behavior that would get you kicked out of any decent university—we forget ourselves, we betray our students, and we undermine the basic credibility of our profession.

Shame on everyone who was involved in this sham. Shame on you even if you’d never been caught. Shame on you for pulling others into your vortex of deception, for making the honest people look bad and tempting your colleagues to join in the deceit. And most of all, shame on you for taking your focus off of serving your students well.

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.