Research & Commentary: High-Stakes Tests and Cheating in Atlanta

Published July 11, 2011

An investigative report from Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s office charges 178 Atlanta Public Schools teachers and administrators with falsifying students’ state standardized tests. Of the 56 schools investigated, the report says, 44 were found to have cheated either by revealing test answers to students or by erasing and correcting wrong answers, in order to meet state or federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks.

Critics say high-stakes tests put too much pressure on teachers and administrators and thus cause unethical behavior such as the Atlanta scandal. In addition, they say, tests don’t always truly measure student achievement, and they argue tests can push teachers and schools into ignoring other important pedagogy by “teaching to the test.”

Proponents of standardized testing say this incident and several other similar ones in recent years don’t prove the tests are faulty, but instead expose the failures of the individuals and schools administering them. And since public schools receive taxpayer money, they should be expected to prove they are providing a measurable positive return on that investment, they argue.

The following documents offer additional information on cheating in Atlanta and the pressures of high-stakes tests.

Investigation into APS Cheating Finds Unethical Behavior Across Every Level
This Atlanta Journal-Constitution report discusses how Atlanta Public Schools teachers and administrators conspired to cheat on students’ standardized tests to produce false achievement gains. Investigators confirmed cheating in 44 of the 56 schools they examined. The cheating goes back at least a decade, and school officials at every level knew or participated.

State Report Depicts Parks Middle as Example of Problems in District
Another article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution details how teachers and administrators at one school changed student tests and gave students the correct answers before tests to make the previously failing school look better. The school district allegedly knew of the principal’s activities and repeatedly refused to do anything about it.

FairTest: Country Is Seeing an Explosion of Cheating Reports
An advocacy group that opposes standardized testing warns of increased problems with cheating on standardized tests as they become more important to teacher salary and retention and school accountability and funding. The group says high-pressure tests can create an atmosphere of “fear” and greater likelihood of coercion and other unethical behavior.

Atl. Cheating Scandal Renews School Reform Debate
This CBS News article considers how revelations of Atlanta’s widespread standardized test cheating may affect efforts for test-centered school reforms and accountability measures. Public school systems including Baltimore, Houston, and Detroit have evidenced scattered cheating, too.

Investigation Finds ‘Widespread’ Cheating in Atlanta Schools
This report from Time magazine calls the allegations of test cheating in Atlanta “likely the largest cheating scandal in U.S. history.” It also describes at least a dozen cheating episodes around the nation in recent years, and it relates the incidents to increased emphasis on student test scores from measures such as No Child Left Behind and merit pay for teachers.

2011 Georgia CRCT Results, by School
The Georgia Department of Education released district-level results from the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT), which are a factor in determining whether a school makes Adequate Yearly Progress, a critical benchmark of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. This newest set of data is less likely to have been influenced by cheating, as investigators tightened up quality control the year before.

Smells Like School Spirit
New York Times columnist David Brooks considers high-stakes tests and their leading critic, Diane Ravitch. He concludes distortions created by testing requirements are more a product of the current school culture and its leadership than the tests themselves. “The places where the corrosive testing incentives have had their worst effect are not in the schools associated with the reformers,” Brooks writes. “They are in the schools the reformers haven’t touched.”

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If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].