Atlanta Cheating Scandal: How the teacher incentives in high-stakes testing situations lead to cheating outbreaks.

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July 21 2011 12:57 PM

How High-Stakes Testing Led to the Atlanta Cheating Scandal

And the ones in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Houston …

An empty school hallway. Click image to expand.
What caused the explosion in school test cheating scandals?

On July 5, Georgia released the results of a state investigation into suspicious test scores in the Atlanta public schools. The state reported that 178 educators in 44 of the district's 100 schools had facilitated cheating—often with the tacit knowledge and even approval of high-level administrators, including Atlanta's award-winning former superintendent Beverly Hall, who conveniently parked herself in Hawaii for the investigation's denouement.

In the wake of this appalling ethical lapse, which resulted in thousands of Atlanta children—largely poor and black—being told they had acquired crucial academic skills they actually lack, the national media and education policy elite have mostly rushed to defend high-stakes testing policies.

"The existence of cheating says nothing about the merits of testing," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan argued in the Washington Post this week, agreeing with such commentators as the editors of the New York Times, David Brooks, and influential school reform philanthropist and blogger Whitney Tilson. They all advocate blaming the adult cheaters while absolving the policies to which they respond.

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The problem with this impulse to forgive No Child Left Behind and defend high-stakes testing is that the Atlanta case isn't an isolated tragedy. A growing spate of evidence from around the country suggests that the most egregious practices in Atlanta—teachers purposefully seating struggling kids next to high-performing ones to encourage cheating on tests; educators gathering at after-school "erasure parties" to correct multiple-choice answer sheets—are part of a national, and indeed a historic trend, one that is bolstered by No Child Left Behind's emphasis on pressuring educators to produce spectacular test results.

Case in point: An explosive and underappreciated investigative series in USA Today this March documented 1,610 cases of standardized test-score manipulation in six states and Washington, D.C., between 2009 and 2010. The newspaper would have almost certainly found more cheating, but it zeroed in on only the most suspicious test-score leaps: those that statisticians said were about as likely to be legitimate as it would be to buy a winning Powerball ticket.

In many cases uncovered by USA Today, administrators were hesitant to investigate fishy test results, even when scores rose implausibly rapidly—say, from 5 percent math proficiency to 91 percent proficiency over the course of three years, as occurred in one Gainesville, Fla., elementary school. That's because under No Child Left Behind—which was enacted in 2001 and requires that every third- through eighth-grader be tested annually in reading and math—schools face sanctions if scores don't improve, including public shaming through being labeled as "failing."

In Washington, D.C., a father became suspicious of his daughter's high math test scores, as the girl couldn't perform basic arithmetic functions. One of then-chancellor Michelle Rhee's favorite principals, Wayne Ryan of the Noyes Education Complex, responded by banning that parent from setting foot on campus. All in all, more than half of D.C. elementary schools, including Noyes, showed evidence of adult tampering with students' standardized test answer sheets under Rhee's administration, which paid principals and teachers up to $12,000 in annual bonuses for raising test scores. Wayne Ryan has since resigned in disgrace.

And adult cheating doesn't just happen at traditional district public schools: Charter schools in South Los Angeles and Tampa, Fla., have been implicated in similar test-manipulation scandals in recent years.

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