Schools Caught Cheating In Atlanta, Around The Country
"There's a tendency to look at this and say there must be something going on in these schools," said Justin Barra, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education. He added that having students review their answers is good testing practice, and that the erasure report is only one investigative tool. "This is forensic evidence," he said. "We're trying to piece together a pattern."
New Jersey's education commissioner, Chris Cerf, sent a letter to districts notifying them of the erasure report and of his plan to investigate the schools with the most erasure marks. Traditional public schools with high erasure rates across the board -- in addition to three charter schools -- will be investigated by the state, and schools with high erasure rates in only one grade will be investigated by their districts.
Last week, the Connecticut Post wrote of a new cheating case in Waterbury, Conn. There, 17 educators at Hopeville Elementary School are currently on administrative leave while state officials investigate alleged cheating on state tests in spring 2010. The expense of the investigation there has led the state's education commissioner to call for legislation that "enhances the liability of professionals who engage in this kind of work."
THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG
Duncan and others have repeatedly stressed that the majority of teachers do not cheat. That appears to have been true in Atlanta. Even so, the lack of incentives for schools to report cheating strongly suggests that more such incidents remain hidden from the public. It is unclear, however, whether the Atlanta scandal will encourage others to speak up or whether its wide-ranging fallout will have a chilling effect on potential whistleblowers.
"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." In other words, politicians respond to incentives, too.
Getting something for nothing is a powerful incentive. According to Cizek, most states' testing companies regularly perform erasure analyses that simply are not widely disseminated. "It's a no-cost option," he said. "It's a flip of a switch."
The results, Cizek said, are usually gathered as a separate report that's stored or filed and sent to the state. There is usually little follow-up unless something like a cheating complaint triggers an investigation.
Few erasure reports see the light of day. The Atlanta Journal Constitution spent years questioning suspicious score gains and filing public records requests before the scores became a national scandal.
To unearth Pennsylvania's report, the Philadelphia Schools Notebook had to request a data package on testing, and received in May a convoluted file that Eller, the Pennsylvania DOE spokesman, said his office had considered useless. Within the file, however, the Notebook found a 44-page erasure analysis, which the blog passed onto Eller. "I provided that directly to the secretary of education," Eller said.
Pennsylvania first ordered an erasure report in 2009, but not 2010. "It's my understanding that it was suggested or offered by our contractor that they could do this analysis," Eller said. Since the revelation of the 2009 report, Gov. Tom Corbett (R) ordered an analysis of last year's results as well.
In New Jersey, the Asbury Park Press filed an open records request for a report, but had to sue the state to obtain a copy without redacted school names. According to Barra, the state DOE spokesman, his department was hesitant to release names because the results are inconclusive. "There's a danger in releasing the report: You start to tag schools that may not actually have problems," he said.
Yet Barra added: "I'm very happy this is something we can talk about publicly. We need to talk about the integrity of the data across the country and this is a vehicle to do that."
Huffington Post reports on these cases have prompted observers to write in about their own experiences with suspected educator cheating. One reader from California said the gains in his school outpaced apparent student learning, and testing security seemed lax. A resident of Bucks County, Pa., reported that during tests, teachers check papers and demand that students change their answers. And a parent in Louisville said her daughter had complained about her kindergarten teacher changing her answers -- and, upon review of the papers in question, found the teacher's handwriting scrawled over her daughter's own.
But such concerned citizens see few incentives to air their grievances publicly. In 2005, local members of the American Federation of Teachers tipped off Georgia education officials about the cheating in Atlanta. They were reprimanded.
AFT President Randi Weingarten cites that case as having a chilling effect on further investigations. "When a whistleblower says something, they know that they're likely to be retaliated against," she told HuffPost. "I'm glad that the Atlanta situation -- even though we don't know all the facts -- that it's getting so much attention, because juxtapose that to what's going on in Washington D.C., which nobody wants to investigate."
She said that the high stakes put on teachers coupled with environments generally hostile to whistleblowers puts them in a "catch-22 situation where there's no due process."
"We need to have multiple measures," Weingarten said. "We need to have measures that are aligned to what kids need to be able to do in the 21st century."
This can change: No Child Left Behind is up for reauthorization in Congress. While progress on that front has stalled, the law will eventually either be remade or set aside. Various efforts, such as the crafting of a uniform curriculum known as the Common Core, seek to broaden the narrow exams that have resulted in a laser-like focus on reading and math. But the current No Child left behind negotiations seem to align with the federal government's view that high-stakes tests do not cause or encourage cheating. And while there is constant talk of the creation of a "next generation" of exams, there has been less about federal whistleblower protections, a signal that curtailing cheating is not a major legislative concern.
CHEATING BEGETS CHEATING
In Atlanta, now that the veneer of dramatic success is gone, the school system has had to face criticism and calls for soul-searching. The schools have a new leader in interim superintendent Erroll Davis, who has reshuffled central offices. School officials have held numerous town halls to answer to public outrage, told teachers named in the report that they would have to resign or be fired, and hired an outside testing company to administer future standardized tests.
Criminal cases have been opened. The state is about to expand its investigation into Dougherty County. Duncan said his office is "looking at" Atlanta Public Schools, and the Georgia Department of Education said it might revoke federal funding allocated by test scores to the schools accused of fudging results. A state politician called for legislation that would require implicated teachers to return any bonus money earned based on test results.
Atlanta schools are back in session Monday, with the scandal still on many minds. More important for the students, the Atlanta public school system is up for reaccreditation this fall, and the cheating report has the district worried. Since most colleges don't accept students from unaccredited schools, the cheating by a few teachers in a few schools could jeopardize the college applications of students districtwide.
"The whole district is getting painted with this broad brush, when there really are some remarkable teachers here," said Atlanta attorney Melinda Moseley, whose daughter Samantha, 14, did not attend one of the schools flagged in the report. "These bad apples, the ones who cheated, they could prevent my little girl from getting into school."
Atlanta's accreditation could yet survive. But the effects of those high-stakes tests are likely to linger.
"Cheating begets cheating," said Ariely, the Duke behavioral economist. "Once you cheat in some way, the next act of cheating is easier. We're not dealing with separate instances of cheating but we're dealing with things that have accumulated."