Cheating and High-Stakes Tests

By Lawrence Hardy

If you believe the indictment, Beverly Hall -- the celebrated, grandmotherly former National Superintendent of the Year -- was running a criminal enterprise out of the Atlanta Public Schools. Education luminaries, from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, once praised Hall for her dedication to poor, minority schoolchildren and her near-miraculous ability to help them learn -- if learning is measured, as it so often is nowadays, by rising scores on standardized tests.

That image began to crumble more than three years ago, when state investigators began looking into hundreds of apparent erasures on those tests. It was shattered completely on March 29, when a Fulton County grand jury charged Hall and 34 other Atlanta educators with racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, and other crimes under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute.

Hall, who received more than $580,000 in performance bonuses during her dozen years in Atlanta, says she knew nothing about the widespread staff cheating found in her 48,000-student district. Investigators tell a different story -- one of an imperious, bullying leader who pushed staff to raise test scores or suffer career-ending consequences while shielding herself from the details and maintaining a position of “deniability.”

“A culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence infected this school system, and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct,” reads the investigative report that accompanies the allegations.

Said to involve the central office, 178 educators, and at least 44 schools, the Atlanta case has been called the biggest public school cheating scandal in history. But it’s not the only one, by far. Allegations of teachers or administrators manipulating standardized tests have surfaced in Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, East St. Louis, Ill., Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., among other cities. And they’ve given opponents of high-stakes tests a strong argument for limiting or abolishing them.

“After the introduction of No Child Left Behind, we saw an acceleration of cheating cases,” says Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, an anti-standardized testing group. “In recent years, as we’re getting to the 100 percent requirement [for student proficiency] in 2014, we’ve seen an explosion.”

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