An extensive investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found "suspicious" standardized test scores in roughly 200 school districts nationwide.
"It looks like we have trouble all across the country," said AJC Editor Kevin Riley. "It looks like we have trouble in large urban school districts and it looks like we have trouble in small school districts as well."
The AJC investigation analyzed standardized test scores from 14,000 school districts, looking for fluctuations that four independent academic experts determined were too dramatic to be explained by demographic shifts, chance or even good teaching.
As just one example, the AJC cites Patrick Henry Downtown Academy in St. Louis, where 42 percent of fourth-graders passed the state math test in 2010. The following year, just 4 percent of those students passed math when they took the test as fifth-graders, according to the AJC. The newspaper points out that while the 2011 tests were administered, the school was under intense scrutiny by state investigators looking into cheating allegations.
With federal and state programs putting pressure on struggling schools to boost test scores, the newspaper's findings suggest that, in thousands of schools across the nation, increased scores took precedence over actual academic achievement. And that may have prevented underperforming students from receiving tutoring or other remedial services.
"Testing of students has become the cornerstone of national policy," Riley said. "That's how schools are evaluated, school districts, principals, teachers. It's absolutely crucial that we can trust those tests because this comes back to schoolchildren."
While the analysis stops short of proving cheating, the newspaper found a pattern of test score fluctuations similar to those uncovered by a local AJC investigation of Atlanta Public Schools in 2009. The newspaper's findings prompted a state probe, which found 180 educators at 44 Atlanta schools were involved with test-tampering.
The AJC's latest investigation suggests what happened in Atlanta is not unique.
"That's why this is so crucial," Riley said. "It's only the beginning of what should be a process of looking closely at questionable school districts and questionable scores."