Investigation Reports on America’s Biggest Cheating Scandal

The long-running investigation into the largest ever cheating scandal in US schools reported its findings this week. The investigation revealed rampant, systematic cheating on test scores in Atlanta’s public schools. It said that extreme pressure to boost test scores drove teachers and principals to cheat.

Governor Nathan Dean released a three volume report from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that names 178 teachers and principals who cheated on the state standardized tests in 2009. The incidents occurred in 40 of Atlanta’s 100 public schools. The investigation also uncovered instances of cheating dating back to 2001.

It also found a “widespread” conspiracy by teachers, principals and administrators to fix answers on the state tests, punish whistle-blowers, and hide improprieties.

In announcing the results of the investigation, the Governor said:

I think the overall conclusion was that testing, and results, and targets being reached became more important than actual learning on the part of children.

The report says that thousands of struggling students were harmed by the cheating by being denied remedial help at school because of their inflated test scores.

The cheating misled parents and the public about the success of schools. The Atlanta Public School (APS) system rose in national prominence during the 2000s, as test scores steadily rose and the district received praise and funding from philanthropic organisations such as the Broad Foundation and the Gates Foundation. Many staff received bonuses on the basis of the rising test scores.

The report describes highly organized, coordinated efforts to falsify tests when children could not score high enough to meet the district’s goals. Teachers and principals erased and corrected mistakes on students’ answer sheets. It says that cheating became a routine part of administering the annual state tests.

At one school, a group of teachers and administrators who dubbed themselves “the chosen ones” convened to change answers in the afternoons or during make-up testing days, investigators found. A testing co-ordinator told investigators that the principal wore gloves while erasing to avoid leaving fingerprints on answer sheets.

At another primary school, teachers sneaked tests off campus and held a weekend “changing party” at a teacher’s home to fix answers. The testing coordinator handed out answer-key transparencies to place over answer sheets so the job would go faster. Cheating was “an open secret” at the school, the report says.

The special investigators’ report also describes years of misconduct that took place up the chain of command to the district superintendent’s office. It says that Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall and her 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. The superintendent and her administration “emphasized test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics,” the investigators wrote.

In one case, Hall’s chief of human resources “illegally ordered” the destruction of early, damning drafts of an outside lawyer’s investigation of test-tampering at one school. Another time, staff were ordered to destroy a case log of cheating-related internal investigations after it was requested by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper.

The report found that three main factors led to widespread cheating on the Georgia state tests in 2009. Administrators set unrealistic targets for schools to achieve, there was a culture of fear and intimidation and meeting targets by whatever means necessary, became more important than real academic progress.

Targets set by the district were often unrealistic, especially given their cumulative effect over the years, and administrators put unreasonable pressure on teachers and principals to achieve them. Because the targets rose each time a school attained them, the pressure ratcheted up in schools each year. Cheating one year created a need for more cheating the next: “Once cheating started, it became a house of cards that collapsed on itself,” the investigators wrote.

The report found a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation throughout the district. Area superintendents silenced whistle-blowers and rewarded subordinates who met academic goals by any means possible.

A code of silence was enforced. When teachers tried to alert authorities, they were labelled “disgruntled”. One principal opened an ethics investigation against a whistle-blower. Another made a whistle-blower alter his reports of cheating and placed a reprimand in his file but not on the cheater’s file. Another told a teacher who saw tampering that if she did not “keep her mouth shut,” she would “be gone.”

District employees suffered intense stress — enough to send at least one to the hospital — in a workplace where threats from supervisors kept them from reporting wrongdoing for fear of losing their jobs. “APS is run like the mob,” one teacher told investigators, saying she cheated because she feared retaliation if she didn’t.

“In sum, a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation permeated the APS system from the highest ranks down,” the investigators wrote. “Cheating was allowed to proliferate until, in the words of one former APS principal, ‘it became intertwined in Atlanta Public Schools … a part of what the culture is all about.’ ”

The Atlanta cheating scandal is the largest of dozens revealed across the US in recent times. Reports of cheating reached a rate of two or three a week last month. A report in The Christian Science Monitor said:

The allegations point an ongoing problem for US education, which has developed an ever-increasing dependence on standardized tests….It’s also a tacit indictment, critics say, of politicians putting all bets for improving education onto high-stakes tests that punish and reward students, teachers, and principals for test scores.

This indeed is the crux of the problem.

This article was compiled from reports in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor and Georgia Public Broadcasting.

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