NEW YORK -- Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal announced Tuesday that widespread cheating inflated Atlanta Public Schools' 2009 state standardized tests scores.
The product of a two-year investigation, the report concluded that systematic cheating occurred within Atlanta Public Schools -- which had been lauded for its quick testing gains -- including at least 44 of the 56 examined schools. The report implicated 38 principals, noting that 178 educators pled the Fifth Amendment when questioned. Eighty-two other educators confessed to various forms of cheating, including erasing wrong answers on students' multiple choice exams and then replacing them with the correct ones.
"The 2009 CRCT [test] statistics are overwhelming and allow for no conclusion other than widespread cheating," a summary of the report circulated by the governor's office said.
The cheating can be traced back to as early as 2001, the report found. It detailed how warnings of cheating in late 2005 were ignored and how the school system destroyed documents and provided false statements to hide wrongdoing.
"In a statewide erasure analysis ... the Atlantic Public School system test results demonstrated a pattern of wrong to right changes, evidencing that these changes did not occur in a valid testing environment," Gov. Nathan Deal said at a Tuesday press conference.
"We share a common resolve to address these problems ... so this dark cloud will not continue to hang over the system, the city and the state," he continued.
Deal forwarded the report to several officials to determine whether its conclusions warrant the filing of criminal charges. The report also illuminated painful consequences for APS students: Because the cheating inflated their scores, causing thousands to miss out on remedial education.
Reports of cheating on standardized tests with the goal of bolstered performance have increased in frequency in recent years, according to Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. Schaeffer, who has tracked such revelations, noted in the past only a few reports surfaced each year, but now several appear weekly.
"The number of confirmed reports of score manipulation has exploded," he said.
Whether the growth is because of better reporting or simply more cheating is unclear. Still, Schaeffer and others say the pressures placed on teachers by policies that stress standardized test scores -- such as No Child Left Behind -- foster an environment ripe for cheating.
"Cheating was caused by a number of factors but primarily by the pressure to meet targets in the data-driven environment," according to the report's summary. "A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation existed in APS, which created a conspiracy of silence and deniability with respect to standardized test misconduct."
"School districts don’t have incentives for policing themselves. Their reputations depend on a steady rise in performance that accountability mandates of NCLB require," said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College.
And with about 15 states preparing to tie test scores to teacher evaluations after a nationwide legislative push toward test-based accountability, Schaeffer said, the pressure is only bound to increase. "We know that the more pressure it's brought to bear, the more people crack," Schaeffer said.
Still, the cheating exposed in Atlanta, he said, is more pervasive and widespread than any he'd seen before.
"The size and scope based on the number of names in the Georgia report appears to be significantly larger than anything before," he said.
THE ATLANTA STORY
Investigators spent more than two years looking into much-lauded gains on 2009's state standardized tests after questions about "statistically improbable" test score increases were first raised by the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.
An initial report was deemed superficial, with one high-ranking official saying her testimony had been edited to soften the blow.
Then-Governor Sonny Perdue ordered a new report, this time with the help of Georgia's equivalent of the FBI.
When Deal took office, he allowed the investigation to continue -- and received its results last week. In his Tuesday press conference, Deal told reporters that "there will be consequences" for those implicated by the report.
The report itself was not released to the media, though officials gave the Atlanta Journal Constitution an early look at the document.
According to the AJC, the investigators concluded that APS chief Beverly Hall -- who retired recently after serving the full length of her term despite the investigation -- "knew or should have known" about the cheating. Hall led Atlanta's troubled schools for 12 years, leading to her being named "Superintendent of the Year" in 2009.
"I was really disappointed," said Diane Ravitch, a New York University education historian and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education who has since become a critic of what she sees as the corporatization of education policy. "I had thought that Beverly Hall was one of our best superintendents, that she was the real deal."
The report criticizes a culture of cheating, fear and retaliation. According to the AJC, it also chronicles the lack of cooperation by officials in the investigation. It alleges that school administrators tampered with the investigation and tried to avoid taking blame for the mess.
AJC education blogger Maureen Downey spelled out what she saw as the motivations for the drawn-out cheating episode:
I think some of their motivation was less self-serving; they wanted to fulfill Dr. Hall’s vision that low-income children from single parent homes and tough neighborhoods could and would succeed at levels comparable to suburban Atlanta peers.
CHEATING ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Atlanta is not alone in allegedly gaming its numbers. Schaeffer said cheating headlines have popped up in the last month alone from Baltimore, Norfolk, Va., Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Florida.
In June, Andrés Alonso, CEO of Baltimore's schools, announced that evidence of cheating had been found at two elementary schools over the last two years. He accompanied the announcement with a promise that the 2011 standardized tests
would be the most "extraordinarily transparent set of scores of any urban district in America."
Shortly afterwards, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed cheating in a letter to state superintendents of education. Duncan wrote:
I am writing to urge you to do everything you can to ensure the integrity of the data used to measure student achievement and ensure meaningful educational accountability in your State. As I’m sure you know, even the hint of testing irregularities and misconduct in the test administration process could call into question school reform efforts and undermine the State accountability systems that you have painstakingly built over the past decade.
Representatives from Duncan's office said they would let the letter speak for itself in light of the Georgia incident.
While Congress struggles to overhaul No Child Left Behind, it might embed more provisions for monitoring tests. But Pallas said states might see this as yet another unfunded mandate.
Besides, Schaeffer said, more policing doesn’t always work.
"It's like trying to enforce marijuana laws," he said. "The more security personnel you add, the further underground cheating gets."
Standardized tests are easy to game, he added. "There are simply too many places in the process where people touch the test or have the opportunity to manipulate scores," he said.
"I've never seen so many cheating scandals as there have been in the last few years," Ravitch said. "As we get closer to this deadline of [100% proficiency under NCLB by] 2014, it's not surprising that there are schools and districts where these things happen again and again."