Atlanta's cheating ways: School officials changed test scores

It has not been proven whether pressure to meet or exceed federal or state guidelines was a substantial factor in the scores tampering in the Atlanta case, but many believe it was.  
Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, July 7, 2011 — Revealing that nearly 200 Atlanta school administrators, principals and teachers changed children’s test scores for at least a decade, an investigation by the state of Georgia calls into question whether the controversial “No Child Left Behind Act,” enacted during George W. Bush’s administration, may be contributing to cheating at school systems nationwide. 

Critics of the law have said for years that the law overemphasized test scores and that tying school systems’ funding to increased student performances on standardized exams undervalued actual children achievement.

It has not been proven whether pressure to meet or exceed federal or state guidelines was a substantial factor in the scores tampering in the Atlanta case, but many believe it was.  

To test a suspicion of grade tampering due to high erasure marks, investigators in 2009 conducted over 2,100 interviews and reviewed 800,000 documents of middle and elementary schools before determining that 44 of the 56 schools had engaged in score changing.  Seven teachers have confessed to test tampering.

The most significant altering was found at Parks Middle School.

The report showed that in one year the rate at which students passed the reading portion of the Criterion Referenced Competency Test, or CRCT, improved from 50 percent to 81 percent.  

Its principal, Christopher Waller, was praised, given awards and even raises because of the improvement; perhaps signaling to other schools that test scores improvement was most valued.

The proof of grade tampering became apparent when test scores for students at the schools under the cheating investigation dropped substantially under heightened security to prevent staff from changing wrong answers.  In 2010, 70.2 percent of students at Parks, the school at the center of the state investigation passed. When retested, less than half of eighth graders passed the math exam, which is a state mandated promotion requirement. Pass rates on one math test dropped from 83 percent to 60 percent at another school suspected of cheating, and from 55.5 to 31.8 percent pass rate at another suspect school.

“Kids who fail the CRCT, which is our state curriculum test, they get extra help when they’re flagged by failing” Heather Vogell of Atlanta Journal Constitution told PBS “It’s actually an important thing, to fail, if you’re not ready — ready to meet the standards for your grade.

“And when somebody changes your answers, and nobody knows that you’re struggling as much as you are, you don’t get the extra help.”

Atlanta Parent Monica Cooper agreed telling the Atlanta Journal Constitution that cheating robs students of knowing what they need to improve upon. “If they need help, they don’t need them changing the answers,” she said. “If they were wrong that is where they need help at.”

Vogel said that the cheating was organized, that educators and administrators would wear gloves so their fingerprints wouldn’t be detected and held cheating parties where they’d get together and change grades.  “It was yearly in some schools, and it was an open secret in some schools,” she said.

It has been reported that then superintendent Beverly Hall emphasized test improvement and lauded extraordinary jumps so much that the culture of the school system bred the cheating. In a statement released through her attorney, then superintendent of schools Beverly Hall who ran the school system for 12 years, stated that she knew nothing of the cheating.

 “Apparently, not one of the 82 persons who allegedly ‘confessed’ to cheating told the investigators that Dr. Hall at any time instructed, encouraged or condoned cheating,” said attorney Richard Deane in a statement. “The report’s conclusion that Dr. Hall actually knew of any such cheating is based entirely on supposition. The further conclusion that Dr. Hall ’should have known’ rests on negative inferences from selective, circumstantial evidence.”

(Feb. 20, 2009) Beverly Hall, Atlanta superintendent of public schools, holds up her award after she was named the 2009 Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators. The Jamaica native is retiring under a cloud of suspicion from allegations of widespread cheating in the 50,000-student district and accusations that she ordered a cover up of test tampering (Image: Associated Press)

(Feb. 20, 2009) Beverly Hall, Atlanta superintendent of public schools, holds up her award after she was named the 2009 Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators. The Jamaica native is retiring under a cloud of suspicion from allegations of widespread cheating in the 50,000-student district and accusations that she ordered a cover up of test tampering (Image: Associated Press)

However, some doubt the credibility of that statement, Maureen Downey of the Atlanta Journal Constitution blogged, “There is real evidence in the report that Hall and her staff ignored or discredited bona fide complaints of cheating.”

Others have accused her of being complicit in the cheating, looking the other way and cultivating a culture where cheating was encouraged. “Hall made sure that everyone in the district was accountable to her, and that she was held accountable by no one,” AJC blogger Jay Bookman wrote. “The result was a school district in which reporting ever-higher test scores, regardless of how they were achieved, became more important than educating children.” 

Atlanta’s three District Attorneys are trying to determine whether crimes were committed and whether to proceed with a criminal investigation. In Georgia, lying to investigators and altering or destroying public documents are crimes.

Closer to home, a recent inquiry into Baltimore Public Schools scores showed a substantial drop in many city schools results.  Its CEO, Andres Alonso, has suggested it had to do with better test security.  Meanwhile, in the District of Columbia, the USA Today reported this May that an investigation is underway into 103 public schools, triggered by substantial gains in standardized test scores. 

At the Crosby S. Noyes school, test scores jumped from 10% of students being “proficient” or “advanced” in math to 58% only 2 years later. Similar gains were shown in reading. 

Investigations are being launched in 6 states including Maryland, California, Florida and Ohio, the Detroit Free press reported.  In Michigan, seven schools were found to have made statistically improbable one-year gains in standardized scores, according to Michigan’s state Department of Education.

As required of all school systems, the Atlanta school system currently follows the No Child Left Behind. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he plans to push for a “plan B” which would permit states unhappy with the law to bypass the requirements of the law and comply with an alternative method for holding schools accountable. 

The NCLB currently requires 100 percent “proficiency” by its own standards by 2014.  Rep. John Kline, (R-Minn.), who chairs the congressional committee in charge of revising NCLB, wrote Duncan a letter saying the committee was unhappy with the proposal and asking for more information.

“While greater information in our education system is urgently needed, the Department’s proposal is cause for concern,” Kline wrote. “Issuing new demands in exchange for relief could result in greater regulations and confusion for schools and less transparency for parents.”

“Additionally, the proposal raises questions about the Department’s legal authority to grant conditional waivers in exchange for reforms not authorized by Congress,” he continued.

Perhaps the ongoing and continuing investigations into cheating at more school systems nationwide would encourage congressional lawmakers to work with the Obama administration to look into alternatives to NCLB.

 If Congress doesn’t move quickly to change the No Child Left Behind law, they project that a whopping 82 percent of the nation’s public schools could fail to meet proficiency targets this year, facing sanctions that ultimately can include a loss of federal aid, the Miami Herald reported.

Clearly, something needs to be done quickly as there are children who are being cheated out of quality education by rogue teachers and administrators who are supposed to have the best interest of children in mind, but are failing miserably.

Read more Politics of Raising Children in The Communities at the Washington Times. Follow Jeneba Ghatt at @JenebaSpeaks. Her work can also be read at JenebaSpeaksBlackWeb 2.0 and Politic365.  She also co-hosts a Blog Talk Radio show called Right of Black which tackles current events and politics from a perspective not often seen in the mainstream media.

 


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Jeneba Ghatt
Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt is a former journalist turned lawyer turned citizen journalist. Currently, she manages her boutique communications law firm, where she has represented small businesses and nationally-recognized civil and consumer rights organizations before the United States Supreme Court, federal courts and the FCC. She also covers the White House and US Congress for the online news site Politic365.com while authoring her own influential blog JenebaSpeaks.com which is frequently accessed by top policy makers and think tanks, and the investment community. JenebaSpeaks.com focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and reports on policies and rules in the communications and tech sector.
 
Before opening her law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, which was the first communications firm owned by women and minorities, Jeneba regulated Comcast and Starpower as the Assistant General Counsel for the District of Columbia's Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, and at one point was the only communications regulatory attorney in the entire city. She is founding member and policy chair for a new trade association, the National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs and provides advice and counsel to new businesses in the tech industry, particularly small businesses owned by women and minorities.

Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, but raised in the United States by her Catholic mom and Muslim dad, she started her college career creating web content for one of the earliest websites in history while working part time for the University of Maryland's Office of Technology. Following her graduation from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, she founded and co-wrote one of the earliest blogs and since then has gone on to found and author six different widely read and influential blogs. She was one of only 22 writers and bloggers to attend the first White House summit for African American media.
 
She holds a Certificate in Communications Law Studies from Catholic; a Juris Doctor from there as well, and a Master of Law in advocacy degree from the Georgetown University Law Center where she first taught and lectured as a Staff Attorney and Graduate fellow at that law school's Institute for Public Representation. She later went on to teach Media Law at the University of Maryland at College Park and guest lecture at Yale Law School and Penn State University, College of Telecommunications. She is well skilled and versed with social media and manages several Twitter, Facebook, Linked In accounts and groups.
 
She sits on the board of several non profits and trade associations.

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