Examining charges of cheating

This Sunday and next Sunday, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution continues its reporting on the integrity of standardized testing.

Our latest work looks at how school officials around the country react when confronted with allegations of cheating. The stories won’t make you feel good — except possibly in one way. As you read about how some cities confronted reports of cheating in their schools, it’s worth recalling what happened here. Eventually, the transgressions of educators have been aired in the clear light of day.

Not so in many other places.

When we looked into behavior in cities where our analysis of test scores showed impossible-to-explain swings in student scores, we found lackluster efforts to investigate cheating.

In March we revealed that about 200 school districts nationwide had patterns of scores that resembled Atlanta’s. In some districts — including Mobile, Ala.; Houston; Detroit; Baltimore; East St. Louis, Ill.; Dallas; St. Louis; and Gary, Ind. — we found such high concentrations of suspicious math and reading scores that our analysis showed the odds of such scores occurring without unusual intervention were worse than one in a billion.

We have, of course, faced harsh criticism from several of these school districts’ leaders. We’re used to it. Despite making some noise, none seemed to have a good explanation for such radical changes in scores.

So we followed up, and this time, in support of previous analysis of the scores themselves, we looked into what schools and districts did when they got a report of cheating. How did they react when a student told a teacher, or when a teacher told a principal?

Our reporters examined documents and case files, and did extensive interviews. Our effort was not to uncover new cheating, but rather to test the school districts’ defense that they were sure cheating wasn’t going on, that they monitored things closely, that they reacted strongly.

Here’s some of what we found:

In most cases, officials focused narrowly on a single classroom or a single school — the approach the Atlanta Public Schools used for years before a scandal over systemic, widespread cheating was ultimately proven by a state investigation.

In one city, the cheating scheme was so elaborate that an administrator devised a code to warn staffers if outsiders showed up during testing, using an alert on the PA system: “Will Abraham Lincoln please come to the office?”

In another example, where student test scores soared, a teacher alleged that the school’s principal “directs the staff to have students write the answers on a piece of paper instead of their answer documents. Then central office collects all the answer documents and pieces of paper and goes to the office and changes the answers.”

Next Sunday, we’ll highlight the results of a 50-state survey of state education departments, and how they handle reports of cheating. Here’s some of what our survey found:

Investigating allegations of cheating remains a low priority in many states, even after scandals in Atlanta, Philadelphia and the District of Columbia.

Just 10 states have money specifically set aside to do investigations. None of those reported they budgeted more than $250,000, a fraction of the $2 million that Georgia has spent on the Atlanta cheating case.

Thirty-seven states allow school districts to conduct cheating investigations of their own employees.

Only 22 states conducted a statistical analysis looking for improbable test improvements in 2012; some experts say such statistical analysis is the best way to detect cheating.

Forty-four states allow teachers to proctor tests for their own students. The proctor’s responsibilities include ensuring the security of the test.

As Atlantans, we’ve learned the hard way that test integrity cannot be taken lightly.

Our country spends as much as $760 million a year on standardized tests. The No Child Left Behind law mandates that third- through eighth-graders be tested.

So the federal government requires the testing but does almost nothing to make sure the results can be trusted.

Local and state school officials are under intense pressure to raise scores. They have little incentive to make sure the scores are legit. And too many people — including in Washington — are looking the other way.

We in Atlanta know that’s a recipe for disaster. After all, we’re awaiting word on whether local district attorneys will pursue criminal charges against teachers and administrators who orchestrated cheating here.

But the real crime is against children: Allowing test cheating is stealing the future from our kids.