iOS app Android app More

Schools Caught Cheating In Atlanta, Around The Country

First Posted: 08/08/11 09:52 AM ET Updated: 10/08/11 06:12 AM ET

Exam

In an Ikea-sized warehouse turned de facto crime lab last fall, professor Gregory Cizek got his first look at the Atlanta test papers that would beget an education scandal of historic proportions.

Cizek, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a leading figure in psychometrics, the obscure field of mental measurement that includes setting and deciphering testing standards. He is often asked to seek out proof of tampering with student work. This case, however, was different.

In the Indianapolis warehouse, far from both his office and the schools where the suspect tests were taken, he saw clear evidence of what has become the most widespread episode of cheating ever documented in U.S. public schools, one which has diminished one of the nation's few education success stories of the past decade.

"Here you have a kid, this fourth-grader who sat down to take a test, who wrote his name on top of an answer booklet," Cizek recalls. "You see it was obviously changed through an awful lot of erasing. That's when you say, 'Something is going wrong here.'"

It was a long first day on the case for the professor, whose eyes burned as he left the warehouse on Sept. 20. Amid reams of stored paper and gigantic scanners, he had examined 1,000 answer sheets for the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test -- a standardized test administered in Georgia -- looking for signs of a teacher or principal erasing wrong answers, filling in right ones and trying to make them look like a student's work.

He found a lot of signs. Further erasure analysis, coupled with interviews of educators from flagged schools, led investigators to implicate some 178 educators in 44 of the 56 schools examined. The resulting report, released by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) last month, found "systemic misconduct within the district as far back as 2001" and concluded that "thousands of school children were harmed by widespread cheating in the Atlanta Public School System."

The 413-page report reads like a thriller, with tales of teachers holding "erasure parties" and principals publicly humiliating their employees. "A culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence infected the school system, and kept many teachers from teaching freely about misconduct," the report's authors concluded.

Unlike some of the other investigators taking a hard look at Atlanta teachers and principals, including former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers, Cizek isn't in law enforcement -- he's an educator himself. So finding evidence of cheating wasn't exactly a pleasure.

"The first time you see an answer sheet where, on a test with 40 questions, there was an average of 18 answers changed from wrong to right in a single classroom, it's not really a 'eureka' moment," he says. "It makes you feel awful.

The report has shaken the school system on both a local and national level because Atlanta's incredible test gains had garnered wide praise. Those scores' integrity had been bolstered by previous investigations spearheaded by the local business community without much incentive to dig deep.

On a national level, the cheating story cuts to the heart of a major education policy debate over accountability. The Atlanta report's conclusion that cheating resulted from a culture of fear, one spurred by rising test-score targets, fuels the argument that policies determined by test scores provide perverse incentives that are not in the best interests of students.

Those in favor of the rising-targets model argue that increases in test security are all that is needed. They assert the model has produced years of gains in the ongoing struggle to add discipline to the field of education and should not be changed because of one case they deem an outlier.

That debate has particular import this year. Roughly 30 states have begun or are about to shift their teacher evaluation systems to rely, by various degrees, on standardized test scores. (Upon receiving $400 million from the federal Race to the Top fund that is partly responsible for that shift, Georgia promised to evaluate educators under a system that counts scores for half of their reviews.) Congress has begun working to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, the sweeping education law notorious for first shifting national priorities to emphasize uniform high-stakes tests.

Atlanta's story has its echoes throughout the country. Washington, D.C., is currently under local and federal investigation for test tampering -- one teacher has already been fired. In the weeks following the Atlanta report's release, news outlets in Pennsylvania and New Jersey published government-issued erasure reports that raise similar red flags in those states.

Much more cheating appears to go unreported or unrevealed. States routinely conduct erasure analyses without releasing their results, according to Cizek. And Huffington Post reports on the Atlanta scandal have yielded several tips about suspicious testing practices in a number of states.

WHY TEACHERS CHEAT

While he has called for an overhaul of No Child Left Behind's narrowly-focused exams, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's policy prescriptions have stressed judging teachers by student test scores, in addition to classroom observations and other such measures.

"To be sure, there are lessons to be learned from these jarring incidents, but the existence of cheating says nothing about the merits of testing," Duncan wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post. "Instead, cheating reflects a willingness to lie at children's expense to avoid accountability -- an approach I reject entirely." Duncan recently gave a speech to teachers in which he called for a "national conversation" on merit pay, which would base teacher compensation on student performance.

But the Atlanta report's authors were less skeptical that tying the merit-pay system to annual standardized tests has skewed teacher incentives.

The report concluded that Atlanta Public Schools "put unreasonable pressure on teachers and principals to achieve targets. A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation spread throughout the district [and] ... emphasized test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics."

Those incentives dovetail with educators' natural desires to help their students, said Dan Ariely, a Duke University behavioral economist. While professionals faced with incentive systems generally try to balance the benefits of cheating with "wanting to look in the mirror and feeling good about themselves," Ariely said, "teachers have a biased view of the world. They want kids to be successful."

Ariely recently co-authored a National Academies paper that concluded the last decade of high-stakes testing policies led to very little learning.

"There's no excuse, but we're taking just one test a year," said Vicky Davis, a private school teacher in Georgia who runs the website Cool Cat Teacher Blog. "[Teachers'] funding and their lives and their money is based on that. When the stakes are extremely high and it's very competitive but you add in the fact that the teachers feel that they don't have control over the results, some will cheat.


FOLLOW HUFFPOST EDUCATION