Friday, April 12, 2013

TWO VIEWS OF THE ATLANTA CHEATING SCANDAL: Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear

Former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall, center, heads towards the Fulton County Jail to turn herself in on Tuesday in Atlanta. Hall is among the 35 Atlanta school system educators named in a 65-count indictment last week that alleges a broad conspiracy to cheat, conceal cheating, or retaliate against whistleblowers in an effort to bolster student test scores and, as a result, receive bonuses for improved student performance. —Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

Atlanta Cheating Scandal Reverberates

By Lesli A. Maxwell, EdWeek |

It's Not the Test That Made Them Cheat

Commentary By Michael J. Feuer in EdWeek |

Published Online: April 4, 2013  ::  The criminal indictments last week of retired Atlanta schools Superintendent Beverly L. Hall and 34 other educators for their alleged roles in a far-reaching cheating scandal could have widespread fallout and potentially undermine efforts in other school districts to improve the academic achievement of poor and minority students, according to education leaders.

Ms. Hall, a one-time national superintendent of the year, and her former school system colleagues were named in a 65-count indictment by a Fulton County, Ga., grand jury that alleges the educators engaged in a broad conspiracy to make student performance in the Atlanta district look better than it actually was. The indictment, which includes racketeering charges, alleges that Ms. Hall and the others cheated on state exams, hid the cheating, and retaliated against whistleblowers who tried to expose it. Many of those who were charged, including Ms. Hall, received hundreds of thousands of dollars in performance bonuses that were based on the fraudulent scores.

“The wider repercussions of the Atlanta case are very troubling,” said Daniel A. Domenech, a former superintendent of the Fairfax County, Va., schools and the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Alexandria, Va. “The problem is that any school systems that have accomplished great turnarounds of schools are going to become suspect, and people will assume that there must have been some cheating involved.”

Ms. Hall—who retired in 2011 after 12 years at the helm in of the 48,000-student Atlanta district and was admired widely for the steady academic progress the system appeared to have made on her watch—turned herself into the Fulton County jail on April 2 and was released a few hours later on a $200,000 bond. The charges against her stem from a state law typically used to prosecute organized crime and are very unusual for educators accused of wrongdoing.

If convicted, she would likely become the highest-profile public school administrator to be held criminally accountable for cheating. Late last year, former El Paso, Texas, schools chief Lorenzo GarcĂ­a pleaded guilty to multiple counts of fraud and was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in manipulating students’ scores on state tests.

Ms. Hall’s lawyer, David J. Bailey, said the former Atlanta superintendent is innocent of all the charges.

“We intend to defend her vigorously and look forward to clearing her name,” Mr. Bailey said in an interview. “Certainly, this is an unprecedented situation.”

In 2009, the AASA named Ms. Hall the national superintendent of the year. Mr. Domenech said the organization’s governing board would likely take the unprecedented step of revoking the award if she is convicted.

<<A booking photo provided by the Fulton County Sheriff of former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall.
—Fulton County Sheriff/AP

“The award was given on the merits of the work that she did,” he said. “A conviction would indicate that there was no merit.” Ms. Hall also received the top urban education leadership award in 2006 from the Council of the Great City Schools, and the Atlanta district was one of five finalists for the Broad Prize in Urban Education in 2002, the inaugural year for that award.

Scandal’s Roots

The specter of cheating on state exams in Atlanta first became public in late 2008, when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published stories on suspicious one-year increases in standardized-test scores in a few elementary schools. The newspaper followed up with an extensive investigation of testing throughout the school system, which triggered a state probe that uncovered how widespread the cheating had been, with nearly 180 educators involved and dating back to 2001.

Investigators for the state found that teachers, principals, and testing coordinators had either provided answers to students during the tests or corrected wrong answers after the tests were turned in. Anyone who tried to report the wrongdoing encountered retaliation, the state investigators said.

The Atlanta scandal, along with allegations of cheating on standardized tests in other school systems, such as the District of Columbia and Philadelphia, have helped fuel a backlash against standardized testing and the high-stakes sanctions and rewards attached to the results.

Some officials, including former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who ordered the state investigation, have said the cheating on state tests also casts doubt on Atlanta’s notable growth in achievement on the rigorous, federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Over the past decade, Atlanta posted some of the strongest gains of any of the urban districts that participate in the Trial Urban District Assessment, or TUDA, a specially collected set of test results on district-level achievement from NAEP. Ms. Hall pushed Atlanta to be one of the original urban districts to participate in TUDA, which publicly reports the performance of the city’s students on the national assessment.

Ms. Hall, who has consistently denied that she knew about the cheating on state tests, has held up the district’s NAEP results as evidence that Atlanta’s students did make real progress.

In 2002, 35 percent of Atlanta’s 4th graders scored at or above the “basic” level on the NAEP reading exam. By 2009, that percentage had grown to 50 percent. For 8th graders over the same period, reading scores rose from 42 percent scoring at or above basic to 60 percent.

Federal officials have said that cheating on NAEP is highly unlikely for two chief reasons: The test is low stakes and there are tight administrative controls over the assessment. No local school personnel ever see or handle the NAEP tests. But after the state investigation in Atlanta revealed cheating on state tests, NAEP officials conducted their own investigation into whether any wrongdoing occurred on the 2009 administration of the national assessment in Atlanta.

They turned up no evidence of cheating, said Sean P. “Jack” Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal agency that administers NAEP.

Federal statisticians also wanted to make sure the district hadn’t tried to manipulate the samples of students to be tested. They looked closely at the 79 Atlanta schools that took part in the test administration in 2009 and found nine schools where the population and demographics of students reported to the U.S. Department of Education didn’t quite match up with the snapshot of students who were included in the testing sample. When NAEP officials probed for answers, there were plausible explanations, Mr. Buckley said. In one case, an alternative middle school had been relocated to a new neighborhood and probably would have experienced a change in its student body as a result.

Mr. Buckley also said that Atlanta’s rates of excluding special education students or English-language learners from the national tests were low compared with those of other districts and the state of Georgia overall. He believes that Atlanta’s progress on NAEP is real.

“The situation in Atlanta is complicated,” he said. “There were obviously rampant violations of testing integrity going on there, but there were also schools there that were legitimately improving.”

Winston Brooks, the superintendent of the 90,000-student school district in Albuquerque, N.M., and a longtime colleague of Ms. Hall’s in the Council of the Great City Schools, said that regardless of the outcome in the criminal case, Ms. Hall deserves credit for improving achievement for many students in Atlanta.

“I think she narrowed the achievement gap and raised the proficiency levels, if not evidenced by the state tests, but as evidenced by NAEP,” he said.

Mr. Brooks said that all urban school leaders will need to be extra vigilant about testing security and integrity.

“Every irregularity and complaint needs to be taken seriously,” he said. “And superintendents and other leaders have to make clear that under no circumstances will cheating be tolerated. I think most of us have taken it for granted that people won’t cheat.”

Impact on Teachers

For many of the educators who were caught up in the cheating scandal, either as participants or whistleblowers, the damage to their careers has been deep, said Verdaillia Turner, the president of the Atlanta Federation of Teachers. While a handful of teachers have been indicted, dozens more were fired, left the district, or lost their state licenses, Ms. Turner said.

“There was an atmosphere of fear in some of the schools, and teachers were afraid,” said Ms. Turner. “Our organization spent a lot of time trying to get teachers transferred out of schools where they felt the pressure to do things they knew were wrong.”

For many of Ms. Hall’s former colleagues outside Atlanta, the news of her indictment is hard to swallow. According to the indictment, Ms. Hall “placed unreasonable emphasis on achieving [student performance] targets; protected and awarded those who achieved targets through cheating; terminated principals who failed to achieve targets; and ignored suspicious [state standardized-test] score gains at schools” with the district.

Ronald L. Carlson, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Georgia, in Athens, said the racketeering and conspiracy charges against Ms. Hall and the former district employees are unlike what is typically seen in criminal prosecutions of educators.

“We’re used to seeing school people charged with theft of money or with abusing students,” Mr. Carlson said. “The success or failure of this prosecution will really turn on the quality of testimony from the teachers and administrators who are cooperating with the state.”

Ms. Hall also has been charged with lying under oath to state investigators that she had no knowledge of specific complaints about cheating in some of the city’s schools.

“Beverly Hall was one of the most highly respected superintendents in the country, especially among her colleagues,” said Mr. Brooks, echoing the widespread sentiment about Ms. Hall among her urban education peers. “Most of us looked at her as a role model, both for her passion for kids, especially minority children, and for her intelligence.”

“I knew her for years, and none of this computes,” said Mr. Domenech, who came to know Ms. Hall when both of them served as school administrators in the New York City region. “It’s just inconceivable that she could have been involved in something like this or possibly leading the parade.”

Ms. Turner, the teachers’ union president, said Ms. Hall was widely viewed as an “aloof” leader who, from the outset of her tenure in Atlanta, relied heavily on members of her administrative team to manage much of the day-to-day operations of the district. Ms. Hall focused much of her attention, Ms. Turner said, on “raising money for the district” and nurturing relations with the city’s corporate leaders, who were very supportive of her agenda.

“She delegated a lot to the people under her, and always operated that way,” said Ms. Turner. “It would not surprise me if she did not know anything” about the alleged wrongdoing.

  • Staff Writer Jaclyn Zubrzycki and Research Librarian Holly Peele contributed to this article.

Published Online: April 9, 2013  ::  News came down, or up, late last month about the indictment of the former Atlanta schools chief Beverly Hall and 34 other current and former officials for their alleged roles in a massive cheating scandal that has rocked the city for the past three years.

The best coverage of this story is by Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Heather Vogell and her colleagues, whose fine journalism uncovered the muck.

There is nothing good to say about cheating on tests, which, in this extraordinary case, involves allegations of tampering with student answers, racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy, and making false statements. It’s wrong, period, and if Ms. Hall et al. are found guilty, they will hopefully use their time in jail to think about the damage they have caused to the kids, to the system, and to the public’s trust in schools and in the measures we use to gauge their quality.

Still, some of the reactions to the scandal have been surprising, if not scandalous in their own right. The most troubling response comes from people opposed to standardized testing generally and to current federal policy specifically. They somewhat gleefully use this sorry episode as the ultimate smoking gun, the perfect we-told-you-so case that clinches their claims about the evils of testing, and, by extension, the entire reform movement. It’s a big nail, they hope, in the coffin of test-based accountability.

"Shall we excuse individual or group criminality because certain social institutions create pressures for greed and misconduct?"

Among the more remarkable statements is one posted by William C. Ayers on Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post blog. For Bill Ayers, an education professor emeritus from the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Atlanta story proves that “teaching toward a simple standardized measure and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the ‘outcomes’ both incentivizes cheating and is a worthless proxy for learning.”

Mr. Ayers goes further. Not only does he attribute the alleged cheating to the testing policy, thereby essentially absolving Ms. Hall and her colleagues of their own ethical and professional lapses, but he uses the example to issue a sprawling condemnation of the U.S. Department of Education, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and even the president. As he puts it, “the road to the massive cheating scandal in Atlanta runs right through the White House.”

I have four problems with this logic (echoed in other commentaries, such as Jason Stanford’s bold assertion in the Huffington Post that “high-stakes testing makes cheating inevitable”; and FairTest’s pronouncement in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed last year that “[t]hese scandals are the predictable result of overreliance on test scores”).

First, shifting the blame for egregious mischief away from the perpetrators and onto the system strikes me as morally and politically bankrupt. Here’s an analogy to consider: Do we react to the worst instances of tax evasion by condemning the concept of taxation rather than by prosecuting the evaders? I assume that Mr. Ayers would not call for abolition of the graduated income tax as a way to finance public goods and redistribute wealth just because the system has its imperfections and because some people lie on their tax returns. Shall we excuse individual or group criminality because certain social institutions create pressures for greed and misconduct? Banking executives accused of fraud will be delighted.

Second, even if one could make an evidence-informed case that testing “inevitably” leads to illegal behavior—as if high-stakes testing overwhelms the human capacity for moral choice—there is the added problem of guilt by association. Pinning the responsibility for the Atlanta disaster on the White House is an extravagant example of misdirected blame. Maybe current federal policies lead to unwanted outcomes, such as narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test, but that’s a far cry from the outright fraud of the sort listed in the Atlanta indictment. Nothing in the No Child Left Behind law requires states or districts to use test scores to fire teachers and principals or to protect and reward those who achieve targets by tampering with answer sheets. In any case, there’s no evidence that federal policy causes cheating, or that “cheating is inevitable.”

Third, indicting testing, rather than cheating, undermines the possibility for reform in the design and uses of tests. The compelling logic in Campbell’s Law—“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decisionmaking, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures ...” —is supported by abundant empirical evidence on the effects of overreliance on tests for accountability.

But what’s often ignored in the popular frenzy against testing, especially in the wake of cheating scandals, is the benefits side of the argument: Tests can help gauge individual learning, give teachers additional information about their students’ progress, provide objective indicators of student achievement, and expose inequalities in the allocation of educational resources.

We may never be able to completely “overturn” Campbell’s Law, but what’s needed is a sensible approach to assessing the ratio of benefits to costs and to the design of mechanisms meant to keep the ratio strongly positive.

Fourth, it turns out that in Atlanta there were schools, and kids, that actually did improve during Ms. Hall’s tenure, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. As U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics Sean P. “Jack” Buckley noted, “There were obviously rampant violations of testing integrity going on there, but there were also schools there that were legitimately improving.”

We shouldn’t allow score gains inflated from cheating to be misconstrued as evidence that any measured improvement in student learning—especially among poor and minority children—must always be the result of cheating or other mischief. This kind of smoking-gun logic saps the morale of educators, parents, and policymakers working in behalf of our most disadvantaged students and provides free ammunition to those who believe investments in public education are essentially futile.

Just when we education researchers and social scientists are facing increasingly mean-spirited political challenges to our profession, Bill Ayers’ and others’ evidence-free diatribes further erode public confidence in the credibility of our work. One can only hope that the temptations of guilt by association won’t prevail, and that the research community as a whole won’t be blamed for the shoddy logic of some of its members.

  • Michael J. Feuer is a professor of education policy, the dean of the graduate school of education and human development at the George Washington University, and president-elect of the National Academy of Education.

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