07/08/2011 11:13 am ET | Updated Aug 29, 2012

Atlanta's Lessons on Standards and Cheating

In a 2009 interview after she was chosen as National Superintendent of the Year, former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall was adamant that "all of our kids have to be educated to high standards" regardless of their backgrounds. "I'm very passionate about trying to get people to step out of this mindset that public education should sort and select" students for success, she told the interviewer. Hall pointed to three Atlanta schools -- Gideons, Capitol View and F.L. Stanton -- that she said proved her point.

Nearly all of the students at each school came from low-income families. And yet, she said, test scores showed that more than 90 percent of them were proficient in reading, language arts and math. What made the difference, she said, was "the quality of instruction and leadership."

The blockbuster investigative report on widespread cheating in Atlanta's public schools issued by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday gives a different explanation. The three schools were among 44 implicated in the report. At Gideons there was "a coordinated school wide cheating scheme" that involved at least a dozen teachers as well as the school's principal and testing supervisor. According to one teacher interviewed, the school's principal told her to "do what you need to. The kids have to pass."

The report blamed the scandal on leadership failures at every level of the system, including the office of the superintendent, although in a statement Hall's lawyer said she "definitely did not know of any cheating."

The cheating is disturbing on a number of levels. Not the least of which is that it encourages the mindset that Hall spent her entire career as a teacher, principal and superintendent in urban schools trying to change -- that poor kids really can't be expected to learn and succeed.

Between 2002 and 2009 Atlanta made the largest gains in reading among the urban school districts that reported scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Atlanta made smaller gains during that period in math. NAEP is widely regarded as an objective measure of student performance and, because of how it is administered, is difficult to game. The revelations of cheating have renewed speculation that the NAEP gains as well as the district's improved graduation rates also were manipulated. On Thursday Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center on Education Statistics, which administers NAEP, told Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute that he was confident that the scores on that test were accurate.

In a 2010 interview Hall attributed the district's gains to "consistent and meaningful" comprehensive reform: standards-based instruction, challenging curriculum, professional development for teachers, strong leadership, accountability, tutoring, after school and Saturday sessions, and using data to make instructional decisions. But a closer look at the NAEP scores raises questions about the limits of this approach. The achievement gaps between Atlanta's Black and White students are shocking. In 2009, after a decade under Hall's leadership, only 13 percent of Black 4th graders were proficient in reading compared to 76 percent of White students. The gap was similar in math. Did principals and others put more energy into faking test scores than they did into addressing the real needs of these students? Would the gains have been greater had they done so?

Atlanta will be dealing with the aftermath of this educational tragedy for a long time. The acting superintendent has vowed that those implicated will never again work with students in the district. Criminal investigations and legal actions will follow. It will take years for the district to regain the trust of parents, students, and political and civic leaders.

It would be a mistake to dismiss this as merely an instance of corrupt individuals or a corrupting system. More than 40 states have adopted new, demanding national Common Core academic standards. New assessments designed to measure those standards are being developed. There is great optimism in education circles that these new policies will push the system towards better preparing students for success after high school. However, the higher standards are expected to cause test scores to fall, at least in the short term.

This will create pressure on schools, principals and teachers and some, no doubt, will resort to cheating. More can be done to ensure the integrity of the system, perhaps by creating independent state agencies to administer assessments. And policy makers, superintendents and test makers can make it clear that the way to really improve student learning is, as Hall has long argued, to provide teachers with the support and leadership they need. They also can recognize the need to experiment with other ways to improve learning, such as new school models and better use of instructional technology. What we shouldn't do is demand less of our schools or our students.