Atlanta, still burning: The cheating scandal continues

This is getting to be an old story (see here and here), but it's an important one. Yesterday's release of a report on the three-year-old Atlanta schools test cheating scandal seems to confirm our worst fears:? it was widespread, which means it was systemic, involving 44 schools and 178 teachers. According to Kim Severson, writing in today's New York Times*, ?a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation existed in the district, which led to a conspiracy of silence.?**? Said Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, who released the report, ?There will be consequences.?

Let's hope so. No doubt, the case will fan the flames of the high-stakes testing fires. Are we putting too much pressure on teachers to ?perform?? And their administrators? Apparently, even one-time National Superintendent of the Year Beverly Hall is implicated. (As Severson reports, she just retired and? ?left Tuesday for a Hawaiian vacation.?) How do you explain systemic cheating?

As I opined last February, ?the range and depth of the problem, especially given the improbability of a conspiracy, is troubling.? Lacking a conspiracy, we are left with an explanation of?moral and ethical breakdown of epidemic proportions. And the question: how is the virus spread??

I'm not sure if the? "conspiracy of silence" proves me wrong, but there are things that can be done?including putting people in jail?and I would hope that Governor Deal is serious about consequences.

By the same token, our policymakers need to take a close look at the policies and practices that not only encourage cheating, but make it easy. When I wrote about Atlanta last February, there was another story about cheating, in New York schools. The word there was ?manipulating? data. As Sharon Otterman of the Times reported,

The Regents exams [the statewide tests that seniors must pass to graduate] are graded by teachers within schools and teachers are not barred from grading their own students.

If the difference between a pass and a fail is a question or two and your job depends on it, the incentive to cheat is high.

The New York city Regent exam score results suggest the problem, as Otterman reported:

At one Queens high school, the number of students scoring 65 to 69 [65 is the passing grade] last year in the five most popular Regents exams?integrated algebra, global history, biology, English and United States history?was more than five times the number who scored 60 to 64.

We need to know that our teachers are teaching and that children are learning. We need tests. And we need accountability. The next move in Atlanta is crucial to restoring credibility to a discredited school system. But what will that move be?

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow


*The Internet age has diminished the meaning of ?yesterday,? ?today,? and, probably, ?tomorrow.? But I hand it to the Times for paying attention to these kinds of details. At the bottom of the online version of the story, they write, ?A version of this article appeared in print on July 6, 2011, on page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: Systematic Cheating Is Found In Atlanta's School System.?

**The Times should have quoted the Governor's press release here.

Peter Meyer
Peter Meyer is a Adjunct Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute