JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the first of two stories about the nation's schools.
Students returned to Atlanta classrooms for the start of a new school year today. But students and teachers will be laboring under the cloud of a major cheating scandal that's raising big questions in Atlanta and in districts across the country.
Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters Television has our report.
JOHN TULENKO: Parks Middle School in Atlanta, Georgia, was a beacon of hope. Located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, it had built a reputation as a high-achieving school.
Chandra Gallashaw felt lucky to send her children to Parks.
CHANDRA GALLASHAW, mother: This was a college prep middle school. I had seen the change going on over there. And I was really impressed with that. That's what made me want my daughter to go there more so than ever.
JOHN TULENKO: Parks had made some of the largest gains anywhere in Georgia. Pass rates on the state tests climbed from 35 percent to 78 percent in reading, and from 24 percent to 86 percent in math.
Then, this summer came shocking news.
GOV. NATHAN DEAL, R-Ga.: The report's findings are troubling. We determined that 178 teachers and principals in the Atlanta public school system cheated.
JOHN TULENKO: The Georgia Bureau of Investigation released an 800-page report detailing district-wide cheating on the state tests going back to at least 2006. In some schools, teachers would point or use voice inflection to guide students to the right answers.
But at Parks Middle School, they took cheating to a whole other level. Before the state exam, investigators wrote, Parks Principal Christopher Waller would give teacher Damany Lewis the key to the room where the tests were kept. Then the teacher -- quote -- "used a razor blade to open the plastic wrapping around the test booklets," copied the tests for each grade and resealed the wrapping using a lighter to melt the plastic.
And after students had finished testing, Principal Waller told teachers it was -- quote -- "time to go," meaning go to the room where the tests were kept and change the answers. In all, 12 teachers and the principal at Parks were implicated. Seven confessed to cheating.
Chandra's daughter's teacher was among them.
CHANDRA GALLASHAW: I was really mad. See, these children take a test before they get in those schools. You know what it's called? It's called the streets out there. It's called the drug dealers they have to walk past, the prostitution they have to walk past, the gangs they have to walk past. They take a test before they even get in them doors.
And what are we doing when we're inside with all this stuff that's going on? It's taking them kids right back to where they done came from. Somebody didn't give a crap about my child.
JOHN TULENKO: The state investigation uncovered cheating in 44 schools, almost half the district's total.
Recent reports of cheating have come up elsewhere, too, in Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. But the case in Atlanta is by far the largest. And it's left many people wondering why it happened and how it can be prevented from happening again.
ROBERT SCHAEFFER, FairTest: It's tempting to blame principals and teachers for what they did, because what they did is clearly wrong. It's unethical. In many cases, it's illegal.
JOHN TULENKO: Robert Schaeffer tracks cheating for FairTest, a national group opposed to the high-stakes fill-in-the-bubble tests used by most states.
ROBERT SCHAEFFER: But you need to understand the context in which these actions took place. The pressure to boost scores by any means necessary is so great, that teachers think they have to get those scores up by hook or by crook.
JOHN TULENKO: In Atlanta, according to the state's investigation, pressure came from the top. Superintendent Beverly Hall, who led the district for 12 years and was 2009 national superintendent of the year, set targets for test score improvements at every school, and told principals that, if they failed to meet them, she would find someone who will. Principals passed the message along.
How are teachers treated in Atlanta's public schools?
GRAHAM BALCH, teacher: Teachers get abused. In these difficult, challenged schools, you have administrators who are telling teachers, do it or else.
JOHN TULENKO: Graham Balch taught in Atlanta for four years and knew about the pressure to meet test score targets.
GRAHAM BALCH: In these lower-income neighborhoods, a student might need to make 50 points of gains to reach the same absolute score that a student in a high-income neighborhood might only need to make two points to reach that -- that goal. And 50 points is a lot of gains, perhaps unrealistic, to make in one year.
ROBERT SCHAEFFER: In that kind of situation, some people crack, more and more apparently each year. There is very clearly much more reported cheating now than at any time in the past.
JOHN TULENKO: Schaeffer says the increase began nearly a decade ago with the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind. It required states to set annual targets for pass rates on state tests, and gave them until 2014 to bring all students up to grade-level or face sanctions.
ROBERT SCHAEFFER: It was said when No Child Left Behind first became law that we would see teaching to the tests and manipulating scores. That's exactly what had happened.
MICHAEL CASSERLY, Council of the Great City Schools: I think there's not reason to think that this is a broad national phenomena, which is one of the reasons I wouldn't necessarily put it at the doorstep of No Child Left Behind.
JOHN TULENKO: To Michael Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools, Atlanta is an isolated case. In support of that, Georgia investigators found no evidence of cheating in 80 percent of all schools statewide. But when cheating happens, he says, the solution is clear.
MICHAEL CASSERLY: It's unacceptable. It needs to be stopped. People need to be punished. And where there are hangings, they need to be public and high.
JOHN TULENKO: With children expected to pass state tests by 2014, the pressure is mounting. So far, 38 percent of schools nationwide have failed to meet test score targets set by No Child Left Behind.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified recently that 82 percent may fail in the year ahead. However, schools may get a reprieve. The law is up for reauthorization, and targets and deadlines could change.
Back in Atlanta, school officials are repairing the damage. Superintendent Beverly Hall, who has denied any role in cheating, resigned in June. Her replacement, Erroll Davis, promises swift action.
ERROLL DAVIS, Atlanta Public Schools: We will find those students who were cheated. We will do assessments. We will look at students who are not where they're supposed to be. And we will provide avenues of remediation.
JOHN TULENKO: And he says he will go after those who cheated, too.
ERROLL DAVIS: I do not believe that anyone who is implicated should appear in front of our children.
JOHN TULENKO: Some teachers will lose their licenses. Others may face criminal charges. Former Superintendent Hall, who received some $600,000 in bonuses, has been asked to return the portion of that tied to fraudulent test scores. As for schools, from now on, any unusual gains will trigger automatic investigations.
But what about the high expectations and tough consequences for failing to meet them that are said to have led to the cheating in the first place?
ERROLL DAVIS: I'm certainly going to review the targets and target- setting process, but I don't think that we should abandon high expectations. I don't think we should abandon putting pressure on people to meet high expectations.
What we have to do, however, is make sure that they -- they have the capability and the training and the resources to meet those expectations.
GRAHAM BALCH: What we have not done as a nation or as a school system is think, what does it look like to help a student who is starting at a lower level make the big gains year after year to get to this high goal?
JOHN TULENKO: Graham Balch also believes pressure alone is not enough.
GRAHAM BALCH: Let's think about how to support teachers, rather than control teachers. Let's think about, what does the class size look like? What do the lab supplies look like?
All we have changed is what we expect. But what we have not done is change the way we do education.
JOHN TULENKO: There's a real opportunity for change, both in Atlanta and in the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. The question is, what will the changes be?
GWEN IFILL: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proposed one answer today, announcing new waivers for states that can't meet the law's deadlines. We will be back shortly with more on the details of that executive order.