Cheating scandal adds fuel to debate over high-stakes tests

Atlanta's school cheating scandal, one of the largest in U.S. history, has launched a national discussion about whether the increased use of high-stakes tests to rate educators will trigger similar episodes in the years ahead.

Pressure to meet testing targets was a major reason cheating took place in 44 Atlanta schools involving 178 educators, according to a state investigation released last week. The revelations, called "deeply disturbing" by the Obama administration, have tarnished Atlanta's Cinderella story of school reform.

This comes as Georgia and states across the country are working on new strategies to retain, pay and promote teachers and principals based -- in large part -- on how much growth students show on standardized tests. Starting next year in 26 Georgia districts, student test data will count as 50 percent in pilot evaluations of teachers in core subjects such as math and science.

“I am convinced you’ll see more [cheating],” said DeKalb County teacher Laura Pittman, who added she was “sickened” by the scandal. “Anybody whose job is tied to performance, it is a setup.”

In Atlanta, teachers who confessed to cheating told investigators they felt inordinate pressure to meet targets set by the district and faced severe consequences such as a negative evaluation or termination if they didn’t. The behavior was reinforced by a district culture of fear and intimidation directed at whistle-blowers.

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Targets were primarily based on the state’s annual Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. Schoolwide bonuses up to $2,000 were given to employees at schools that met prescribed targets, and according to the state investigation, former APS Superintendent Beverly Hall also benefited financially from the bonus system.

Georgia, as one of several winners of the federal Race to the Top grant, pledged to change its teacher and principal evaluation system so performance is more heavily weighted on a student’s academic growth on tests. Evaluations will soon play a role in who gets certified to teach, who gets promoted and, eventually, who gets the biggest paycheck.

Race to the Top is one of the cornerstones of President Barack Obama’s education policy and has been a catalyst for reform across the nation. Central to the policy is the insistence on tying educator evaluations to student test scores to provide more substantial evidence of good teaching.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the Atlanta situation was “deeply disturbing,” but he disagrees with people who say a greater emphasis on testing will cause more cheating. Students need to be evaluated, he said, and what leads to great test scores is great teaching.

“Lots of places are seeing tremendous reform, are moving forward, doing great and doing it the right way,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The saddest thing here is the Atlanta public schools were making real progress. And now that’s buried in this story.”

Person or policy?

In 2002, the federal No Child Left Behind Act increased the importance of testing by requiring schools and districts to meet annual performance goals. The goals increase every year and are based largely on how many students pass annual standardized tests, which in Georgia includes the CRCT. Schools and districts that fail to meet annual goals after several years face stiff sanctions such as school takeover, even as the expectations get higher.

The latest accountability push focuses on teachers and educators and the belief that they should be graded -- and rewarded -- on how much students are learning, not just how many pass a test. States who choose to participate in the Race to the Top are leading that change and now debating how best to measure student growth over time.

Sandi Jacobs, vice president for the National Council on Teacher Quality, a group that supports tying test scores to evaluations, said there is reason to worry about an increase in cheating, especially if teachers don't understand the new system.

“I am sure people cheat for worse reasons than fear, but the fear is real,” she said. “Teachers are nervous and worried and they think jobs are at stake, and until they can develop confidence that it is a fair system, they are going to stay worried.”

In Atlanta, local targets went beyond the goals set under No Child Left Behind. Investigators said "targets were implemented in such a way that teachers and administrators believed they had to choose between cheating to meet targets or failing to meet targets and losing their jobs.”

The scheme to boost test scores appeared to stretch across every level of the district and went on for as long as a decade. Hall’s attorney has said she did not know of any widespread cheating, and that there was no direct evidence to show she knew widespread cheating had occurred.

But Atlanta isn’t the only district where cheating is suspected. Reports from Florida, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Washington suggest cheating by educators is on the rise or getting more attention. Some point to the approaching No Child Left Behind deadline, which mandates 100 percent of students reach “proficient” levels by 2014 as a possible cause.

Walt Haney, a testing expert and a professor of education at Boston College, said cheating is becoming more prevalent as the testing stakes get higher. What do the cases have in common? An unrealistic emphasis on test scores without attention to other evidence of school quality, he said.

“It’s this idiotic pressure on schools and teachers regarding test results that I think is corrupting not just the test results, but education,” Haney said.

But the question for many is whether a policy can trigger educators to cheat, or whether the lapse in ethics rests solely on the individual.

Serene Varghese, who taught in Atlanta Public Schools from 2005 to 2010, said at Garden Hills Elementary School there wasn’t a culture of retaliation and retribution. But even still, she felt the pressure to hit performance goals because she didn’t want to let down her colleagues or principal.

Varghese said she and the other teachers always wondered how other high-poverty schools would hit the marks that Garden Hills missed.

“There is no excuse for any professional to cheat on any sort of test," she said, "but that's easy to say because I am not at risk of losing my mortgage or not being able to feed my kids because I don’t have a job.”

A 2003 study of Chicago Public Schools, at that time led by Duncan, showed when financial incentives for teachers rose, so did manipulation. But a 2010 study conducted by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University found no evidence participants were more likely to cheat than nonparticipants, even with a $15,000 bonus at stake.

Matthew G. Springer, who oversaw the Vanderbilt study, said policies don't force educators to cheat. But he says the Atlanta case highlights the need for monitoring, especially as testing takes on a bigger role. The national lesson here, he said, is that as educators' evaluations get more sophisticated, so too must monitoring and training of how the system works.

"It needs to be clear to educators that the state is going to look for cheating," he said.

A better system

A consensus has emerged on a few critical areas: Educators should be measured by how much their students grow academically from year to year, and not by proficiency -- the percentage of students that pass the test any given year. And test scores shouldn’t be the only factor in the evaluation process.

Georgia’s new system under Race to the Top will measure teachers on that so-called “value-added” growth model, and it will also use some other measurements -- classroom observations, student feedback -- though to a lesser degree.

State officials feel they are headed in the right direction. Funding is earmarked in the grant for erasure analysis, to audit other data such as attendance rates and for on-site schools visits, state Department of Education spokesman Jon Rogers said. And the state’s aggressive response to suspected cheating shows officials take the validity of test scores seriously, he added.

Marlyn Tillman, a Snellville resident and education advocate whose son graduated last year from Brookwood High School, said she thinks the Atlanta scandal is proof that tests should be used as diagnostic tools and not to add pressure to educators.

“I think what the APS scandal shows is that teachers, administrators and school personnel are people, too," she said, "and people will do what they need to do to survive.”

Staff writer Nancy Badertscher contributed to this article.

Interview with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about the Atlanta cheating scandal

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan this week answered AJC reporter Nancy Badertscher's questions on the Atlanta cheating scandal.

Q: What do you say to people who say the Atlanta scandal is evidence that as greater emphasis is put on tests there will be more educators who are driven to cheat?

A: I don’t agree with that. That does a grave disservice to the overwhelming majority of teachers and principals who are doing amazing work every day, often in very challenging circumstances. They act like people are going to cheat just to get ahead. The absolute tremendous majority of educators would never cheat for any reason and are working hard every single day to help students be successful. That’s why they came into the profession. You don’t want to overtest or place too much emphasis on it, but to just say more people are going to cheat -- I’ve got a lot confidence, a lot more faith in America’s educators than that.

Q: So you think the pressure and the emphasis is about appropriate?

A: I don’t know the local context there, so I don’t know whether it was appropriate or not. Students should be evaluated each year. We need to know what they’re learning, what they’re not. Ultimately, what leads to great results, whether its test scores or graduation rates, is great teaching, great education, engaged lessons. And test scores take care of themselves. If you are just focusing on the test scores and just teaching to the test, that doesn’t work for kids.

Q: Are there lessons to be learned from this for this district, others around the state and country?

A: Absolutely. Huge lessons. Again, whether you are in education or you are a journalist, a doctor, a lawyer or police officer, nothing is more important than integrity. Ultimately, we’re trying to teach children life lessons, and a lot of these children got robbed -- something got taken from them, something got stolen from them. And that is just absolutely unacceptable. What are the lessons? Integrity matters, honesty matters. Doing the right things for children is a very simple test. You’ve got to look in the mirror every single day and say are you doing the right thing for children? If the answer is yes, you should feel really good about it. If the answer is no, it’s got to change.

Q: As you talk to others educators, are there safeguards?

A: There are clear, not expensive security measures that you take to make sure things have integrity. Look at our guidance. Should Atlanta do those things? They should have done them yesterday. And they should do them today. It’s pretty easy. The technical fix is easy. With a new leadership team, it’s a tough time, but from a tough time Atlanta Public Schools can rise again. You learn these lessons, you put in place the discipline. And the biggest thing: Atlanta Public Schools has to regain the public’s trust, and that’s going to take time. But all you have is honor and integrity, and you’ve got to get back to that.

Q: You were pretty supportive of [Beverly Hall]. Had you ever envisioned the magnitude?

A: What stunned me most was the magnitude. This is a cultural problem. If it was in two schools, that’s one thing. But 80 percent of schools. I’ve never seen anything like this in life, and hopefully there will never be another one like this again. Hopefully, this is as bad as it will ever be. And hopefully, Atlanta and the rest of the country will learn from this.

Q: Have you weighed in?

A: The technical fix is very simple, and they need to put that in place. The job for a new superintendent coming in after a crisis is to rebuild public confidence with absolute integrity, transparency. That’s what the district needs. The most immediate thing is to get the help for the children who may have been denied. We’ll do whatever we can to be helpful and to make the new team successful. I met with the governor and mayor a couple of weeks ago. Children of Atlanta deserve better than what they’ve had, and I want to make sure they get that.

Q: We know the public faith in public schools is shaky already. What does this do?

A: This is a blow of course. But from a very tough situation you can grow, you can rebuild again.

MORE:

Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Investigation

Are drastic swings in CRCT scores valid? 

Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall to step down

Jury finds Cotman not guilty in first Atlanta cheating trial

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