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Atlanta Schools Cheating Scandal

By now, it seems practically everyone knows about the cheating that occurred in Atlanta on the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. In a 400-page report, state investigators revealed that the cheating took place at 44 schools, and involved 178 teachers and principals. More disturbing was the involvement of former Superintendent Beverly Hill, who was named the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year.

The news about the nation's largest cheating scandal on standardized tests to date is dismaying, but as I wrote on Jun. 21, 2010 ("Campbell's Law Strikes Again") it should come as no surprise. It is the inevitable outcome of Campbell's Law: the more any quantitative indicator is used for decision making, the more it will be subject to corruption and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor. This is not to excuse the wrongdoing but to explain it.

Atlanta is not an aberration. Washington D.C. schools are currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education regarding allegations about cheating ("U.S. Education Department joins DC. test probe," The Washington Post, Jul. 7). Earlier this year investigations uncovered cheating by educators in Indiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, Texas and Virginia. As pressure mounts to produce favorable results on standardized tests, I fully expect to see more exposes. For example, Colorado passed a law in May tying teacher tenure to test scores. This requirement sets the stage for a repeat performance of Campbell's Law.

Yet it's important to put the cheating scandal into proper perspective. Although Atlanta is in the news because of the size of the scandal, the educators involved are only a fraction of the 6,000 employees in the district. Let's not smear the reputation of all of them. That's why the decision by interim Superintendent Erroll Davis Jr. to require ethics training for all employees seems like an overreaction.

That doesn't mean states should relax their vigilance. On the contrary. California, for example, used to conduct random audits of test scores at 150 to 200 schools annually. But its budget woes put an end to the practice. As a result, there's no way of knowing for sure if high rates of erasures from wrong to right that occur from time to time are merely an aberration or a sign of cheating.

This is where investigative reporting can perform a great public service. If it were not for the work done by Heather Vogell at the Atlanta Journal Constitution three years ago, cheating in Atlanta schools would never have been exposed. Vogell sensed something was rotten when she reviewed score gains between the spring and the summer of 2008. The jumps seemed too good to be true. As it turned out, they were. Her subsequent reporting opened a can of worms that could not be ignored.

Given their budget shortfalls, states may find that their best ally are education reporters who are willing and able to dig beneath the surface. Caroline Hendrie, executive director of the Education Writers Association, said it best: "Newspaper reporters play a very valuable watchdog role, particularly in the climate we're in right now with regard to test-based accountability."

If it's any consolation at this troubling time, Campbell's Law is not limited to K-12. Researchers in colleges and universities have fabricated or manipulated data in order to get tenure or receive lucrative grants. Nevertheless, there is something unique in the minds of taxpayers when teachers of children are involved. To their way of thinking, teachers have violated a sacred trust. They have. But at the same time, it's important to remember that teachers are only human.

Correction: The former superintendent of Atlanta schools was Beverly Hall - not Hill.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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