Widespread cheating on 2009 standardized tests in Atlanta Public Schools — despite “significant and clear” warnings — harmed thousands of students and resulted primarily from “pressure to meet targets” in a data-driven school system, according to results of an investigation released Tuesday.

Of the 56 schools that were examined, cheating was discovered in 44 of them — that’s more than 78 percent — and 178 teachers and principals were found to have cheated on standardized tests, according to a statement released by Gov. Nathan Deal and first reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Eighty-two confessed, while half a dozen others pled the Fifth Amendment, which protects people from being forced to incriminate themselves.

And cheating was found years earlier than the 2009 administration of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, or CRCT, according to the statement (which you can read in full below.)

Investigators also reported that there was a climate of “fear, intimidation and retaliation” in the school system, which put pressure on teachers and principals to meet specific standardized test score targets. That pressure, the report said, was the biggest factor in the cheating scandal.

Because test scores were inflated, thousands of children were denied the opportunity to receive tutoring that may have helped them do better in school, the probe concluded.

Atlanta is the first district in the country to admit wholesale cheating on standardized tests, but it is not likely to be the only one where such cheating occurred.

Cheating scandals have erupted across the country, including in Washington D.C. public schools, where a USA Today investigation raised suspicion of widespread cheating and where city officials have launched a review.

The cheating revelations in Atlanta have been dribbling out for some time, and Beverly Hall, the Atlanta school superintendent who was named 2009 Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators, announced late last year that she would step down this summer. She just left the job, her once stellar reputation tarnished by the issue.

Few who have paid attention in the education era of high-stakes testing will be surprised at this. And the stakes are only getting higher for teachers and principals, who are increasingly being evaluated and paid according to how well their students do on standardized tests, despite research showing that test-driven reform hasn’t made an impact in the last decade on student achievement. I wrote about the cheating issue last week in this post, titled “Cheating on standardized tests and roaches,” and it seems even more relevant today.

Here is the full statement on the Atlanta cheating investigation that was released Tuesday by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal:

“Nothing is more important to the future of our state than ensuring that today’s students receive a first-class education and integrity in testing is a necessary piece of the equation,” said Deal. “When test results are falsified and students who have not mastered the necessary material are promoted, our students are harmed, parents lose sight of their child’s true progress, and taxpayers are cheated. The report’s findings are troubling, but I am encouraged that this investigation will bring closure to the problems that existed in APS and restore the focus on students and the classroom. As we begin to turn the page on this dark chapter in Atlanta Public Schools, I am confident brighter days lie ahead.”

An outline of the findings of the investigation follows:

  • *Thousands of children were harmed by the 2009 CRCT cheating by being denied remedial education because of their inflated CRCT scores. 
    • --We found cheating in 44 of the 56 schools we examined (78.6%). There were 38 principals of those 56 schools (67.9%) found to be responsible for, or directly involved in, cheating.
    • --We determined that 178 teachers and principals in the Atlanta Public Schools System cheated. Of the 178, 82 confessed to this misconduct. Six principals refused to answer our questions, and pled the Fifth Amendment, which, under civil law is an implied admission of wrongdoing. These principals, and 32 more, either were involved with, or should have known that, there was test cheating in their schools.
    • --We empathize with those educators who felt they were pressured to cheat and commend those who were willing to tell us the truth regarding their misconduct. However, this report is not meant to excuse their ethical failings, or exonerate them from their wrongdoings.
  • *The 2009 CRCT statistics are overwhelming and allow for no conclusion other than widespread cheating in APS. The BRC expert, Dr. John Fremer, wrote an op-ed article for the AJC in which he said there was widespread, organized cheating in APS.
  • *The drop in 2010 CRCT erasures confirm the conclusion above.
  • *Cheating occurred as early as 2001.
  • *There were warnings of cheating on CRCT as early as December 2005/January 2006. The warnings were significant and clear and were ignored.
  • *Cheating was caused by a number of factors but primarily by the pressure to meet targets in the data-driven environment.
  • *There was a major failure of leadership throughout APS with regard to the ethical administration of the 2009 CRCT.
  • *A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation existed in APS, which created a conspiracy of silence and deniability with respect to standardized test misconduct.
  • *In addition to the 2009 CRCT cheating, we found other improper conduct: several open record act violations; instances of false statements; and instances of document destruction.