In Atlanta teacher test-cheating scandal, children are the ones who lose

Published: Tuesday, April 2 2013 11:05 p.m. MDT

Photos of some of the 35 defendants in Atlanta's school cheating scandal decorate a board as members of the media wait for the defendants to turn themselves in at Fulton County Jail, Tuesday, April 2, 2013, in Atlanta. The defendants are named in a 65-count indictment that alleges a broad conspiracy involving cheating on standardized tests in Atlanta Public Schools. All 35 defendants must turn themselves in Tuesday.

David Goldman, Associated Press

Teachers, not students, are the cheaters in an Atlanta Public Schools scandal over fraudulent results on student achievement tests. Now, the former superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools has been indicted on racketeering and other charges for her alleged role in the 2009 scandal that tainted her district's academic achievement results, according to Education Week.

Before the scandal, Beverly Hall was an award-winning administrator regarded as one of the nation's top urban school leaders. The Jamaican native could face as many as 45 years in jail. In 2011, news broke that the district inflated achievement scores over a 10-year period. Hall knew about it, or should have, investigators determined.

Last week, the New York Times revealed that proof of the scandal came when a third-grade teacher at an Atlanta school was persuaded to testify for the state. Jackie Parks admitted she was among seven teachers at her school that spent test weeks in a locked room, erasing wrong test answers and replacing them with correct ones.

Parks secretly recorded conversations with her fellow teachers for investigators, who had already found a widespread pattern of erased tests across the district.

Atlanta Public Schools includes 52,000 students, many of them poor and African-American, the New York Times said. During Hall's tenure, tests showed that the students outperformed wealthy suburban districts on state tests, winning fame for Hall, and $500,000 in performance bonuses.

Students lost out, though, the story said. Inflated scores at Parks Middle School, for instance, meant the school lost $750,000 in state and federal aid for schools in need of improvement.

When the test-cheating scandal broke, it launched a national discussion about whether tests with high-stakes results for teachers might trigger more cheating in the future, said a 2011 story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Pressure to meet testing targets was a major reason for the cheating, according to the state investigation.

"This comes as Georgia and states across the country are working on new strategies to retain, pay and promote teachers and principals based — in large part — on how much growth students show on standardized tests," the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said.

Teachers who confessed to cheating said they were pressured to meet district achievement targets and threatened with negative evaluation or job loss if they didn't, the story said.

"In 2002, the federal No Child Left Behind Act increased the importance of testing by requiring schools and districts to meet annual performance goals," according to the story. "The goals increase every year and are based largely on how many students pass annual standardized tests. … Schools and districts that fail to meet annual goals after several years face stiff sanctions such as school takeover, even as the expectations get higher."

Cheating is also suspected in Florida, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Washington as the 2014 deadline for 100 percent student proficiency under the federal No Child Left Behind draw near.

Walt Haney, a testing expert and professor of education at Boston College told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that unrealistic emphasis on test scores puts teachers and schools under pressures that corrupt not only test scores, but education itself.

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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