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Educators Accused Of Tampering With Students' Tests From D.C. To Pennsylvania

First Posted: 07/11/11 09:30 PM ET Updated: 09/10/11 06:12 AM ET

As Atlanta deals with the fallout of a report that exposed widespread, systemic cheating by educators on standardized tests, more and more such episodes -- and their aftermaths -- have unfolded from Washington, D.C., to Pennsylvania.

The rigor and scale of Georgia's independent investigation -- believed to be the deepest look into teacher cheating in U.S. history -- will either spur states into action when it comes to questioning rising student test scores or scare officials away from drawing attention to potential flaws at their schools.

"On the one hand, we've got new administrations at the state level which are quite willing to reveal problems with the previous administration," said Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College. "By the same token, in a lot of states there's going to be a preference to not find out if there's large-scale cheating, to avoid undertaking this kind of investigation, as the result will be questioning their own claims of academic success."

A report released last Tuesday by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal alleged that systematic cheating occurred within Atlanta Public Schools, including at least 44 of the 56 examined schools. It implicated teachers who had been found to erase students' incorrect answers and replace them with correct ones. The report followed an earlier investigation, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's education school Dean Andy Porter, that the school district had buried.

"The rooster is guarding the hen house," said Gregory Cizek, a University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill professor involved in analysis of Atlanta's schools. "When you're asking the state Department of Education to follow up on the state education system's potential problems, you're asking the wrong people to follow up on that. It should be some external or independent arm that does the follow up or the analyses."

The Atlanta school board met Monday to begin deciding the fate of the 138 implicated teachers.

On Friday, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a blog on Philadelphia's education system, reported that the state had provided it with a 2009 forensics investigation that flagged 60 statewide schools with suspicious results on standardized state exams.

The Notebook reported that "the odds that the wrong-to-right erasure patterns that showed up on Roosevelt's 7th grade reading response sheets occurred purely by chance were slightly less than 1 in 100 trillion."

Notebook reporter Ben Herold said that the state only produced the report once the blog had asked for it upon learning that states regularly perform forensic analyses of exams -- and may or may not release them.

"People in Philadelphia are reacting to this news in the context of what's happening elsewhere in the country," Herold added. "The district said they were never provided with this report and they would have used it in the course of internal investigations."

Herold's team analyzed the report and found that 22 of the implicated public schools and seven of the implicated charter schools were in Philadelphia. The report raises even larger questions in light of Philadelphia's nine years of test score gains.

The Notebook also asked Porter -- who produced the analysis of Atlanta schools -- to look at the report.

"I looked at their procedures and they seemed reasonable, smart, so that was good," he told HuffPost. "The frequency of worrisome patterns of results in Atlanta was greater than in Pennsylvania, but it does look like there were a number of schools in Philadelphia that were flagged one or more times. I'm sure Philadelphia is going to take those results very seriously."

Porter noted that the data itself -- without corroboration by witnesses -- doesn't prove cheating occurred.

When HuffPost asked U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about the Pennsylvania story on Monday morning, he said he hadn't yet seen it. "I'll look at it this week," he said.

"Folks are really paying attention to this," he continued. "There's a greater awareness of the issues and trying to do things the right way. We put out guidance to states on this. You've got to take the state tests very seriously. You can't cheat children. You can't hurt children. That's exactly what you're doing."

Calls to the Pennsylvania Department of Education were not returned Monday.

"The state is having the same reaction Georgia educators had to that first report," Cizek said. "The state may not have a strong incentive to follow up real vigorously."

Also on Friday, Washington, D.C., released its latest crop of test scores, showing a general positive trend. A district official revealed the day before that the U.S. Department of Education had joined in the investigation of unlikely scoring patterns and alleged cheating incidents between 2008 and 2010. The probe began in March after USA Today investigated patterns of erasing students' incorrect answers.

The revelations come weeks after Andrés Alonso, CEO of Baltimore's schools, announced that evidence of cheating had been found at two elementary schools over the last two years, and after Arne Duncan sent a letter to all state education commissioners across the country stressing the importance of test integrity.

"Cheating under any circumstance is unacceptable," American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten told a conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday. "It does raise the bigger issue that when tests themselves, and the high-stakes nature of them, become the be-all and the end all, as opposed to teaching and learning."

Last summer, New York state had to recalibrate its testing measures after finding that students had been mistakenly told they were proficient in certain subjects. "There's going to be a lot more reticence of state level officials to spend the money to do these kinds of investigations and run the risk that they'll be embarrassed at the process," Henig said.

Meanwhile, in New York City, the New York Post's Michael Goodwin has asked readers to write in about incidents of cheating they've observed. In his most recent column, he noted that schools chancellor Dennis Walcott's promise to address these charges is getting delayed by bureaucracy.

"Dennis Walcott might want to introduce his left hand to his right hand. They have a lot to talk about," he wrote.

Walcott continued:

The tangled, redundant process and limits on the chancellor's authority are troubling omens. Whistleblowers, many fearing retaliation, are owed a quality and prompt investigation of credible charges. Giving them the run-around would give a green light to those inclined to cheat.

It is unclear whether the rise in cheating on standardized tests is due to more incidents of actual cheating or increased public awareness. Either way, as federal education policies and state teacher evaluations increasingly hinge on testing data, observers worry that the mounting pressure to produce results will cause more teachers and principals to crack.

"Increasing stakes of scores are tied to some of these revelations," Henig said. "The incentives are stronger in terms of pressures on principals and teachers to have their students do well and they're being held accountable for their students' test performance."

Tyler Kingkade contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of reporter Ben Herold and misstated the process by which The Notebook obtained a report flagging schools with suspicious test results. The Huffington Post regrets the error.

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