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Beyond Atlanta: Improbable testing gains found across the country

By Neal Carter and Jay Kernis
Rock Center

Nearly four months after Rock Center’s investigation into the largest school cheating scandal in U.S. history, a new in-depth analysis by the Atlanta Journal Constitution revealed hundreds of school districts around the country had test scores with patterns resembling those of the troubled Atlanta School District.

The Atlanta paper analyzed 1.6 million records of standardized test scores across the country from 69,000 schools. The investigation sought to determine whether testing gains from year to year were legitimate.

Some of the largest cities in the country exhibited test score changes so drastic that the odds of the scores increasing naturally were 1 in 1 trillion. The AJC says the analysis does not prove cheating in any school district, but it does suggest the testing gains were unlikely to happen by chance.

Last fall, Rock Center’s Harry Smith spoke with former Atlanta School Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall in her first television interview since leaving Atlanta Public Schools. For more than a decade, Hall had presided over a dramatic rise in test scores across her district. However, investigators Bob Wilson and Mike Bowers, appointed by Georgia’s governor, charged that Hall had fostered a culture of fear and intimidation which led to and encouraged district-wide cheating.

The cheating was done not by students, but by teachers and school administrators who erased answers from wrong to right on students’ answer sheets or prompted students to change their answers with physical or verbal cues during the exams.

Dr. Hall, a former national Superintendent of the Year, did not accept blame for the cheating, but did say that she should have made sure tighter controls were in place.

“I did not know (about cheating) and if I ever knew, it would have been dealt with,” Hall told Rock Center. 

Since the release of the Georgia investigators report, 179 educators in Atlanta have been suspended or faced sanctions such as the loss of their teaching certificates. The scandal cost Georgia taxpayers at least $6 million.

Testing policy expert Greg Cizek believed that Atlanta was just the tip of the iceberg. When Harry Smith met with him in North Carolina during a Rock Center investigation, Smith asked Cizek how widespread the kind of cheating found in Atlanta was across the country.

“The interesting thing is that if you think this is Atlanta or Philadelphia or Washington, DC, limited to—to big urban centers, it’s happening everywhere. If you’re not seeing it, it's because you’re not looking for it,” said Cizek, a professor of educational evaluation at the University of North Carolina.

Cizek is one of the country's top experts on standardized test cheating. He was called in during the Atlanta Public Schools investigation to analyze data and physical evidence that had been collected. He did not participate in the AJC's nationwide study.

Cizek said that widespread cheating is likely wherever kids are at risk of not doing well on standardized tests.

“This kind of thing is all over. Wherever kids are at risk of not performing well and people want to … intervene in some way to, to make that student's performance better to make their school district be high achieving. Anywhere there are kids who are at risk of academic failure, you're going to find this.”

The new AJC investigation found alarming test results in some of the country's largest urban school systems. Baltimore, Detroit, East St. Louis, Houston and Dallas recorded some of the steepest gains that fell well outside the study's accepted norms.

At one school in St. Louis, 42 percent of fourth graders passed the state math test in 2010. After measures to combat cheating were put in place the following year, only four percent of that same class passed. Several parents in the district were already suspicious of the test preparation and instruction at schools in the district according to the AJC.

Official responses from school districts have been varied. Some attribute the testing gains to increased instructional time, while districts like Nashville Public Schools believe there were errors in the Atlanta Journal Constitution's methodology. Many districts with abnormal scores already had measures in place to combat cheating and many said they would look into the results of the AJC study immediately.

The fallout from this report could vary wildly from district to district and state to state. Despite, the widespread statistical anomalies, the AJC emphasizes the fact that most educators do not cheat.

As Aaron Pallas of Columbia Teachers College explained to NBC News, these unusual testing patterns need to be examined, but it does not mean there was definitive widespread cheating.

Editor's Note: Click here to watch Harry Smith's report, "Flunking the Test," originally aired November 28, 2011 on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.