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What You Need to Know About the Shocking Cheating Indictments in the Atlanta Public Schools

The Atlanta indictment alleges a top-down conspiracy.

Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

A March 29 grand jury indictment details the shockingly sick culture of adult cheating that existed within the Atlanta public schools under former superintendent Beverly Hall, who resigned in disgrace two years ago. A one-time “Superintendent of the Year” who earned $580,000 in performance bonuses, Hall allegedly fired skeptics and whistle-blowers and protected the jobs of the very same principals and teachers known to have held “erasure parties” to change students’ standardized test answers from wrong to right. Here are some of the biggest questions this scandal raises for national education reform:

Is Atlanta an isolated case? The extent of the top-down malfeasance under Beverly Hall may be unprecedented, but as I report in this Slate piece, there is reason to believe that policies tying adult incentives to children’s test scores have resulted in a nationwide uptick in cheating. An investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution found 196 school districts across the country with suspicious test score gains similar to the ones demonstrated in Atlanta, which statisticians said had only a one in 1 billion likelihood of being legitimate. A 2011 study by USA Today of test scores from just six states found 1,610 instances in which gains were as likely to be authentic as you are likely to buy a winning Powerball ticket. Absent independent, local investigations of suspected wrongdoing—which are rarely conducted—we simply cannot know the full extent of the cheating, which makes it difficult to assess whether the United States ought to continue down the road of tying teacher and administrator pay and job security to kids’ standardized test scores.

Do scores on national tests show Atlanta schools improved under Hall, despite cheating on state tests? When the scandal first made national news in 2011, Hall claimed that because Atlanta demonstrated improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal exam used only for research purposes, it proved kids made real academic gains during her tenure. That defense was echoed last night on All In With Chris Hayes by guest Pedro Noguera, a NYU educational sociologist whose work I deeply respect. But although NAEP security procedures are generally considered more stringent than those used in state and district-level testing, there are reasons to be skeptical of Atlanta’s gains on the national exam as well. Between 2002 and 2009, the demographics of Atlanta NAEP test-takers changed considerably; the number of white students taking the test doubled, and the number of Hispanic students also went up. In Atlanta, white and Hispanic children tend to score higher than black children, which led Professor Mark Musick, a former NAEP chairman, to estimate that as much as 40 percent of Atlanta’s gains could be due to changes in which students sat for the exam; former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has also said he is skeptical of the way students were selected to take the test. But even if we take Atlanta’s NAEP scores at face value, they provide limited cause for celebration. The city still shows the second-largest black-white achievement gap in the nation—only Washington, D.C., ranks lower.

Are teachers to blame? Classroom teachers are among the 35 Atlanta educators indicted, but other teachers acted as whistle-blowers, including two single-mother elementary school teachers who cooperated with state investigators, overcoming fears of losing their jobs. The Atlanta indictment alleges a top-down conspiracy, and Hall may or may not have explicitly directed her underlings to erase students’ wrong answers. But she fostered a no-excuses culture obsessed with test-score gains; fired principals and teachers who questioned this agenda; and, according to the grand jury report, concealed allegations, from 2006 on, that one of her favored principals, Christopher Waller, was leading an institutionalized cheating effort at Parks Middle School. In fact, even after a district investigator found evidence of cheating at Parks, Waller was rewarded with at least $17,500 in performance bonuses.