ATLANTA – A cheating scandal is roiling Atlanta Public Schools, casting into doubt the work of hundreds of students in at least 12 of the mostly poor, mostly minority district's elementary and middle schools.
At one elementary school, a student said his teacher whispered in his ear the correct answers for a standardized test.
A teacher at another school reported seeing school administrators and other educators erasing wrong answers and filling in the right ones after students had turned in tests. One teacher said an administrator told her to "shhhh" when she brought up possible cheating by educators in the school.
The allegations surfaced in recent days as part of a statewide review of every standardized test taken in Georgia elementary and middle schools in spring 2009. The problems have drawn comparisons to scandals elsewhere that experts say reflect the increasing pressure to meet federal No Child Left Behind standards.
The controversey has also placed a black mark on the squeaky clean reputation of Superintendent Beverly Hall, who was named 2009 Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators, in large part for her work increasing the district's test scores and graduation rates.
Hall stressed that the independent investigation cleared the majority of the district's 100 schools and that the cheating, if it existed, was not "coordinated or orchestrated."
"In any profession — from religion to journalism — you have a small percentage of people who will be unethical. It doesn't mean you minimize it, but you put it in perspective," Hall said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"People hear everything that could have gone wrong and it continues to reinforce a pervasive belief that an urban system can't function and poor kids can't learn," Hall said.
A number of other urban school districts and individual states have been caught up in cheating scandals in the last several years, including Baltimore and Houston, and Texas, Washington and Florida.
Problems have mounted, some experts say, as teachers and school administrators — particularly those in low-income districts — bow to the pressure of the federal No Child Left Behind requirements and see cheating as the only way they can avoid sanctions. Under the law, failing schools must offer extra tutoring, allow parents to transfer their children to higher performing schools and fire teachers and administrators that don't pass muster.
Studies estimate that between 1 and 5 percent of teachers nationally cheat each year, from giving answers to students to changing answers from wrong to right on answer sheets.
"The pressure to increase achievement is enormous and will likely increase in the next few years," said Ron Dietel with the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at UCLA. "We are approaching 2013-14, when 100 percent of students are required to be proficient in math and English language arts. Virtually all public schools face sanctions because almost none will reach that goal."
In Atlanta, district officials are trying to determine exactly what happened last year at schools where students' test scores rose dramatically — almost impossibly, in some cases. For example, at Peyton Elementary School — where between 93 and 97 percent of students passed math, reading and English language arts tests — the likelihood that students in one educator's classroom made such a high number of erasure marks to their tests is one in 10 trillion, according to the district's investigative report released earlier this month.
Hall ordered the independent investigation into questions raised by the statewide audit that was released in the spring.
She has also launched a three-month tutoring program for students who were at the 12 schools under suspicion to make sure they aren't behind in mathematics, English and other subjects. The extra studying involves before- and after-school tutoring for the students, along with help during class.
Hall also has reassigned 12 principals to jobs where they aren't in direct contact with students and turned the names of more than 100 educators over to the state for investigation.
That hasn't satisfied some critics, who've asked for Hall's resignation.
"How much does she need to do to be held accountable? Does she need to commit armed robbery?" said state Rep. Ralph Long, D-Atlanta. "The damage has really been done. The trust has been lost."
Atlanta's probe was part of a larger statewide investigation that has so far led to nearly 200 Georgia educators being turned over to the state's teacher licensing commission for possible sanctions. Atlanta by far had the largest number of schools on a list of elementary and middle schools with irregular levels of erasures on student tests.
In Baltimore, the principal at George Washington Elementary School was fired this year and stripped of her teaching license after state officials found thousands of marks changing wrong test answers to correct ones. The 18-month investigation into cheating was a harsh setback for the school, which had been a source of pride for city officials because of its improved test scores.
The principal, Susan Burgess, has denied all wrongdoing.
Texas has been plagued with cheating allegations in recent years.
The Houston school district was investigated in 2005 for widespread cheating on the Texas standardized test at 23 schools. Six teachers were fired and three administrators demoted after cheating was proven at four schools.
The following year, an audit flagged 442 Texas schools for irregularities, forcing the Texas Education Agency to issue tighter regulations on testing materials. More recently, educators at a handful of schools were either fired or reassigned after it was found they helped students cheat on tests.
In May, the principal, assistant principal and three teachers at Normandy Crossing Elementary School in Houston resigned over allegations of test tampering. Investigators said the educators gave students a study guide to the standardized science test after sneaking a look at the questions by "tubing," creating an open tube of the test booklet without breaking the seal.
In 2004, Washington state investigated nearly two dozen reports of improperly administered tests in various school districts. Teachers admitted to telling students questions before the exam, changing answers or telling students to fix answers.
Similar problems have popped up in Norfolk, Va., where a state investigation found that a principal pressured teachers to use an overhead projector to show special education students answers on a reading test. In Massachusetts, the state shut down the Robert M. Hughes Academy Charter School in Springfield after the school produced dramatic and unlikely test scores for students.
"It definitely undermines the reputation of the district, and it can have undeserved negative effects for teachers who are not involved and did a good job," said Bob Linn, a testing expert who is retired from the University of Colorado at Boulder. "Everybody then becomes suspect."
Atlanta Public Schools: http://www.atlanta.k12.ga.us/
National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing: http://www.cse.ucla.edu/