A new investigative report details a second major standardized test cheating scandal in a Georgia school system, implicating 49 educators, including 11 principals. A key reason for the “disgraceful” cheating, investigators said, was pressure to meet No Child Left Behind requirements.

The probe (see here and here) by the Georgia governor’s Special Investigators team into cheating in the Dougherty County School System concluded that “hundreds of school children were harmed by extensive cheating.”

“While we did not find that Superintendent Sally Whatley or her senior staff knew that crimes or other misconduct were occurring, they should have known and were ultimately responsible for accurately testing and assessing students in this system. In that duty, they failed,” the 293-page report says.

It comes months after details of massive cheating on standardized testing in the Atlanta Public Schools were made public. In that scandal, 78 teachers and principals in 44 of the 56 schools examined were found to have cheated on standardized tests.

In the latest debacle, the Albany Herald reported, the cheating occurred on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. An unusually high number of erasure marks on test booklets led to an investigation by the school district, which concluded that there was no cheating but that the erasures were a result of test-taking strategies students had been taught.

It’s hard to see how anybody could believe that after scandals in Atlanta and several dozen districts around the country, but county officials did. Georgia’s then-governor, Sonny Perdue, didn’t though and ordered a state investigation. Current Gov. Nathan Deal continued the probe and now we know what happened.

Among many lessons from this episode, there is this key one: School districts should not be responsible for policing themselves. School officials, wanting their system to look good, are likely to give the benefit of the doubt to people they shouldn’t.

According to Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, nationally, the only cases in which cheating problems have been fully documented are those in which truly independent investigators were brought in.

The report starts unequivocally:

“The disgraceful situation we found in the Dougherty County School System (DCSS) is a tragedy, sadly illustrated by a comment made by a teacher who said that her fifth-grade students could not read, yet did well on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT).

“This incredible statement from a teacher in a school where the principal flatly refused to cooperate with our investigation is indicative of what we found in many of the schools we visited.”

The report says that percentage of flagged classes in Dougherty County schools exceeded any other district in Georgia except Atlanta, and accounts for 10.8 percent of the “severe” category schools in the state. By percentage, that makes this scandal as widespread in Dougherty as the Atlanta scandal in that system. Of the middle and elementary schools in Dougherty County, 36 percent fell into the “severe concern” category, 27 percent were of “moderate concern” and 23 percent were of “minimal concern.”

The report cites three key reasons for the cheating:

*Pressure to meet the adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act, a provision that requires school districts to annually increase the number of students who score at the proficient level on math and reading standardized tests.

*A fear by teachers and principals of being perceived as failures.

*The failure of principals, as well as the system’s administration, to lead.

Not all 11 principals had the same level of culpability; some actively participated in cheating, while others did not ensure the tests were properly administered. The distinction is important but hardly exculpatory. It is one thing to explain how high-stakes testing has led to more cheating, and even to understand how some people might feel pressured to cheat. There is, though, no good excuse for this kind of behavior, no matter how wrong it is to use these tests to assess students, teachers, principals, schools and districts.

A conclusion in the report was this: “Since the enactment of NCLB, standardized testing has become more about measuring the teachers, principals and schools than accurately assessing the children’s academic progress.”

There have been numerous cheating scandals reported in school system after school system around the country in recent years, according to FairTest, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to reduce the misuse of tests. FairTest has documented confirmed cases of test cheating in 30 states and the District of Columbia over the past three academic years.


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