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The New Yorker Uncovers Some Rocks in Atlanta Cheating Scandal

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The New Yorker is back on the education beat this week, again painting some broad strokes on an urban schools story that his been unfolding for several years. (The last big education report in the magazine, in May, was on efforts to improve the Newark, N.J., school system.)

This time, the subject is the Atlanta cheating scandal. It's a story that hasn't exactly gone uncovered, especially in the pages of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In brief, former Superintendent Beverly L. Hall and 34 other educators were indicted last year by a Fulton County, Ga., grand jury on charges that they conspired to encourage cheating on state achievement tests, hide the cheating, and retaliate against whistleblowers who sought to expose it.

Hall, who has pleaded not guilty, faces trial in August, along with 13 remaining defendants. (Others accepted plea agreements.)

The New Yorker's Rachel Aviv tells the story chiefly through the experience of Damany Lewis, a math teacher at now-closed Parks Middle School. Along with others who did not believe in the legitimacy of the tests and steep accountability measures imposed on the school by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Lewis fell into a pattern of cheating that included copying test booklets ahead of time and erasing and changing students' wrong answers. 

Parks Middle School showed dramatic gains, the magazine says, under the system of steep improvement targets overseen by Hall, who was Atlanta superintendent for 12 years until her retirement in 2011 under the cloud of the scandal.

There are several dramatic episodes in Aviv's story, largely base on conversations with Lewis. There is the instance of Lewis taking a test booklet out of a plasticized bundle and then using heat to re-seal the plastic. There was a principal who allegedly distracted a testing coordinator while a trusted group of teachers entered the coordinator's office to erase wrong answers and fill in the right ones—all while students were at recess. A teacher even took a cellphone photo of the coordinator's office at the outset to make sure everything looked undisturbed.

Lewis was one of the first teachers to confess to Georgia state investigators in 2010, and he escaped prosecution in exchange for his cooperation, the story says. 

Aviv goes well into the Atlanta story before dropping some national context: that there have been cheating scandals in dozens of cities, and that according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report last year, 40 states had detected instances of cheating by educators in the previous two years.

"It's hard to find anyone in the system who wants to look under the rock and see what's there," a sociology professor tells Aviv.

The New Yorker story looks under some of the Atlanta rocks, and more are likely to be overturned when the trial in the case gets underway.

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