TOPICS > Education

Schoolhouse Shock: Report Finds Widespread Cheating by Atlanta Educators

July 6, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
A new report found that nearly 200 Atlanta school administrators, principals and teachers cheated to raise student test scores for as long as a decade. Gwen Ifill discusses the report's findings, and the problem that has surfaced in school districts across the country with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Heather Vogell.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, an exhaustive new report reveals nearly 200 educators cheated to boost student test scores in Atlanta, a problem that has surfaced in school districts across the country.

The Georgia investigation commissioned by Gov. Nathan Deal found, results were altered on state curriculum tests by district administrators, principals and teachers for as long as a decade. Educators literally erased and corrected students’ mistakes to make sure schools met state-imposed testing standards. And it found evidence of cheating in 44 of the 56 schools examined for the 2009 school year.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been digging into these inconsistencies for more than two years. Reporter Heather Vogell joins me now.

Welcome, Heather.

So, tell me, how did all of this surface? You have been spending a lot of time reporting on this.

HEATHER VOGELL, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Yes.

We first wrote about some suspicious scores in at Atlanta school back in December of 2008. And we did an additional analysis in 2009. And the state started their investigation in 2009. So, this has been something that’s been out there for a while. But I don’t think any of us realized quite how pervasive the problem was.

GWEN IFILL: And the response before has been denial, when your stories first came out?

HEATHER VOGELL: Yes, denial.

Slowly, as time has gone by, we have gotten more admissions of, you know, some cheating here and there. There’s an educator who — you know, do the wrong thing occasionally. And, as time has gone by and more and more has come out, there’s been a little bit more concession that there is a more widespread problem.

But, even today, I’m not quite sure that we have gotten really a full — that there’s been anybody who’s admitted in the district administration that this was really an incredibly serious, serious problem.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you recount things like teachers or administrators, educators, putting on gloves so their fingerprints wouldn’t be detected or cheating parties, where people would get together and change the results.

HEATHER VOGELL: Right. Exactly.

I mean, what was amazing to me in this report was how organized it was and how groups of people were getting together. This wasn’t just something that was happening in the classroom or happening in a closet, or one person taking it upon themselves to do something sneaky because they were worried about a couple kids in their class who weren’t going to do well.

This was organized. It was yearly in some schools, and it was an open secret in some schools.

GWEN IFILL: Was it pervasive? You found — or this report finds 178 educators, including — including, I guess, three dozen principals involved.

HEATHER VOGELL: Right.

GWEN IFILL: In the size of the school — what is the size of the school system and how pervasive do these numbers indicate this has been?

HEATHER VOGELL: I think pretty pervasive.

I believe there are around 100 schools in Atlanta right now. And I think that about around 80 of them are elementary and middle. And those are the types of school that were examined by the investigators.

GWEN IFILL: Did the investigators…

HEATHER VOGELL: They only looked at the elementary and middle level.

GWEN IFILL: Pardon me.

Did the investigators find out that this had an effect, manipulating school scores, I guess, that students who couldn’t read end up getting promoted?

HEATHER VOGELL: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Did it actually change the numbers of overall academic performance in the school system?

HEATHER VOGELL: It did change the numbers.

You know, the investigators say that, because of what they found, they believe that much of the progress that Atlanta has been touting over the last 10 years on these curriculum tests has been — I think their phrase was ill-gotten, that this — this could have actually had an impact on the overall district, their appearance of how they were doing.

And, for individual students, it certainly would have an effect on the trajectory of their education. Kids who fail the CRCT, which is our state curriculum test, they get extra help when they’re flagged by failing. It’s actually an important thing, to fail, if you’re not ready — ready to meet the standards for your grade.

And when somebody changes your answers, and nobody knows that you’re struggling as much as you are, you don’t get the extra help.

GWEN IFILL: What are the — what are the pressures on educators to do this sort of thing? Is it a pressure that was brought by the school superintendent, brought by the state, or internal?

HEATHER VOGELL: I think that what really happened here was — I don’t know that it’s unique, because educators everywhere are under a lot of pressure in public schools now, and everybody knows that. And you have No Child Left Behind.

But there was sort of a culture that sort of brewed within Atlanta public schools that was more intense and more dangerous, I think, than other places. And that was the — according to the investigators, that was some — that was a tone that was set by leadership.

They gave three key reasons why they believe that cheating flourished as much as it did in Atlanta. One was that the district set its own test score targets that were harder to meet than the ones that the state and federal government set. So, they were even higher.

Secondly, there was a culture of retaliation and intimidation that really flourished within the hallways of the schools. Anybody who questioned the means or methods that schools were using to achieve certain gains was shunned if they were lucky, fired if they weren’t lucky.

And, third, they also said that Dr. Hall, Dr. Beverly Hall, the superintendent, and her senior staff emphasized praise, success, performance and her image and the district image over the integrity of the tests, that they didn’t emphasize honesty enough.

GWEN IFILL: She has just left this job. And there’s now an acting superintendent in charge. Do we know that she personally knew and directed this kind of behavior?

HEATHER VOGELL: I think people are still trying to figure out exactly what she knew.

And the investigators, as close as they got to that, was to say that she knew or should have known. There are questions about whether she was in a meeting, for instance, where cheating was discussed, the results of an internal investigation.

And there’s questions about whether she should, as — as an educator with — a veteran educator with a lot of experience, a lot of training and a lot of knowledge of data, she should have recognized the signs that these scores were not valid.

GWEN IFILL: Is there prosecution possible in this? Have laws been broken?

HEATHER VOGELL: It’s possible.

I can’t say whether laws were broken or not. But there are three DA, district attorneys, that are looking at whether crimes were committed. In Georgia, it’s a crime to lie to investigators, and it’s also a crime to alter or destroy public documents.

And that is a statute that was used — it’s a felony — both of those are felonies — that was used to prosecute a principal in another district. I guess it was last year, I think, that he ended up being charged, and he pled guilty to changing answers, to changing the tests.

So those are potentially applicable statutes. And the investigators did say people did provide them with false information.

GWEN IFILL: And this is something which is not unique to Georgia, you discovered, as well.

HEATHER VOGELL: Right. Yes. I mean, we seem to be hearing more and more about these sorts of problems cropping up around the country.

GWEN IFILL: Heather Vogell of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, good work. Thank you so much.

HEATHER VOGELL: Thank you very much.