THE SEARCH: The cheating had gone on for decades!

TUESDAY, MAY 30, 2023

Somehow it went undiscussed: The history of this type of boondoggle goes on and on and on.

After that, it goes on and on some more. Then it goes on and on.

We first learned about it in 1971 or 1972, in our third year as a fifth grade teacher in the Baltimore City Schools. We wrote about it in the Baltimore Sun, several times, in that very decade.

Roughly forty years after we found out, USA Today and the Atlanta Journal Constitution finally caught on! To their very substantial credit, they banged the drum quite loudly.

Briefly, everyone knew! Today, a type of cheerful gullibility may tend to linger on.

"Education experts" had remained clueless, at least in public, over the many long years. Education professors didn't address the issue. Neither did test publishers, some of whom—or so we were reliably told—had been neck-deep in one part of the interwoven network of scandals and scams.

We're speaking about deliberate cheating on standardized tests in the public schools, yielding those "miracle" stories. And yes, we're talking about outright "cheating"—not about milder conduct which might be described as "test prep," or even as "teaching to the test."

We first learned about it over dinner one night long ago. Forty years later, Dana Goldstein, then with Slate, wrote about the scandals which had finally emerged—which had finally been researched and reported—in several major cities. 

Goldstein's piece appeared in Slate on July 21, 2011. Dual headlines included, her report began as shown:

How High-Stakes Testing Led to the Atlanta Cheating Scandal
And the ones in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Houston …

On July 5, Georgia released the results of a state investigation into suspicious test scores in the Atlanta public schools. The state reported that 178 educators in 44 of the district’s 100 schools had facilitated cheating—often with the tacit knowledge and even approval of high-level administrators, including Atlanta’s award-winning former superintendent Beverly Hall, who conveniently parked herself in Hawaii for the investigation’s denouement.

In the wake of this appalling ethical lapse, which resulted in thousands of Atlanta children—largely poor and black—being told they had acquired crucial academic skills they actually lack, the national media and education policy elite have mostly rushed to defend high-stakes testing policies.

Goldstein spoke about outright "cheating," not about "teaching to the test." With respect to the scandal in Atlanta, she spoke of an "appalling ethical lapse."

That was a severe understatement. 

What sorts of things had some teachers and administrators done—and not just in Atlanta? As she continued, Goldstein said that some teachers and administrators had done such things as this:

[T]he Atlanta case isn’t an isolated tragedy. A growing spate of evidence from around the country suggests that the most egregious practices in Atlanta—teachers purposefully seating struggling kids next to high-performing ones to encourage cheating on tests; educators gathering at after-school “erasure parties” to correct multiple-choice answer sheets—are part of a national, and indeed a historic trend, one that is bolstered by No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on pressuring educators to produce spectacular test results.

Yes, you read that correctly! In Atlanta, large numbers of "educators" had gathered at after-school “erasure parties” to correct multiple-choice answer sheets—to erase wrong answers on students' answer sheets, replacing them with the answers which were correct.

Teachers replaced wrong answers with correct answers! Unsurprisingly, test scores soared.

The conduct seems astonishing, especially when it's done in the open, among other teachers at "erasure parties." But no, this type of conduct hadn't surfaced in Atlanta alone. Continuing directly, Goldstein also wrote this:

Case in point: An explosive and underappreciated investigative series in USA Today this March documented 1,610 cases of standardized test-score manipulation in six states and Washington, D.C., between 2009 and 2010. The newspaper would have almost certainly found more cheating, but it zeroed in on only the most suspicious test-score leaps: those that statisticians said were about as likely to be legitimate as it would be to buy a winning Powerball ticket.

In many cases uncovered by USA Today, administrators were hesitant to investigate fishy test results, even when scores rose implausibly rapidly—say, from 5 percent math proficiency to 91 percent proficiency over the course of three years, as occurred in one Gainesville, Fla., elementary school...

In Washington, D.C., a father became suspicious of his daughter’s high math test scores, as the girl couldn’t perform basic arithmetic functions. One of then-chancellor Michelle Rhee’s favorite principals, Wayne Ryan of the Noyes Education Complex, responded by banning that parent from setting foot on campus. All in all, more than half of D.C. elementary schools, including Noyes, showed evidence of adult tampering with students’ standardized test answer sheets under Rhee’s administration, which paid principals and teachers up to $12,000 in annual bonuses for raising test scores. Wayne Ryan has since resigned in disgrace.

Atlanta wasn't alone! USA Today had reported widespread cheating in six additional states, but also in Washington, D.C., where press corps darling Michelle Rhee had built her career on the basis of transparently phony claims about the spectacular test scores she said she'd produced among her students as a Baltimore elementary school teacher.

Rhee's test score claims had never made sense. Now, as she sat at the chancellor's desk in D.C., the problem had gone systemwide.

At any rate, it had finally happened! All of a sudden, but ever so briefly, everybody suddenly knew about this kind of misconduct—a type of misconduct we'd first learned about, and written about, back in the 1970s. 

In Atlanta, the consequences of the misconduct were vast. Wikipedia offers this account of what happened when the law stepped in:

In 2009, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published analyses of Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) results which showed statistically unlikely test scores, including extraordinary gains or losses in a single year. An investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) released in July 2011 indicated that 44 out of 56 schools cheated on the 2009 CRCT. One hundred and seventy-eight educators were implicated in correcting answers entered by students. Of these, 35 educators were indicted and all but 12 took plea deals; the remaining 12 went to trial. 


Prior to the scandal, the [Atlanta Public Schools] had been lauded for making significant gains in standardized test scores...Superintendent Beverly Hall, who served from 1999 to 2010, was named Superintendent of the Year in 2009. The GBI's report said Hall "knew or should have known" about the scandal. Hall's lawyer has denied she had any knowledge of cheating practices. In 2013, she was indicted in relation to her role in the matter...

The trial began on September 29, 2014, presided over by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter. It was the longest criminal trial in Georgia history, lasting eight months. The lead prosecutor was Fani Willis. Before the end of the trial, the superintendent at the center of the scandal, Beverly Hall, died of breast cancer, aged 68.

Eleven of the twelve defendants were convicted on racketeering charges. As recently as last year, seven of the teachers were still appealing their convictions. 

Even at that late date, complaints were still being lodged about these prosecutions. Such complaints alleged excessive zeal on the part of prosecutors, who had brought these cases under the kinds of RICO statutes normally reserved for mobsters.

That said, no one has ever claimed that widespread cheating didn't occur, whether in Atlanta or elsewhere. For one brief shining moment, everyone seemed to know that reports of miraculous test score gains shouldn't necessarily be taken at face value—and that teachers and administrators will sometimes engage in astonishing conduct in order to produce such gains.

At this juncture, we stress two extremely important points:

The cheating didn't occur on the Naep:

None of the cheating in Atlanta had occurred on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Naep), the highly regarded gold standard of domestic educational testing.

In Atlanta and in D.C., the cheating had taken place on the annual statewide testing programs which were being widely used at that time to evaluate school systems, principals, teachers and schools. 

The federally-run Naep is a very different kind of testing program. Until fairly recently, there had never been any obvious incentive for teachers or principals to cheat on the administration of the Naep. Because of the way the Naep is administered, it would be much more difficult for some educator to do so.

This has no direct connection to the alleged "Mississippi miracle:"

We are not suggesting that some such cheating has been involved in the improved statewide Naep scores in Grade 4 reading in the state of Mississippi.

We make no such suggestion. We know of zero reason—none at all—to say that any such cheating has been involved in those large test score gains, which the Associated Press discussed in this May 17 report

We offer this bit of recent history to raise a broader point:

Over the course of the past fifty years, major news orgs have routinely thrilled to heartwarming claims of miraculous test score gains. 

Everybody loves the story of the little, low-performing school or school system which could! Everybody loves the story of the underperforming school which found a way to produce miraculous gains. 

Everyone loves the (Rhee-style) story of the insanely hard-working individual teacher who produced miraculous gains from her or his struggling class.

Our journalists have always loved those stories. Our experts have kept their traps shut.

Routinely, such stories have turned out to be bogus. But nothing cools the desire to believe in The Low-Income Grade School Which Could.

It seems to us that a similar type of gullibility may be surrounding those "heartening" claims about the AP's "Mississippi miracle." It seems to us that the AP report blew right past a certain reform in Mississippi which may have created a situation in which that pleasing rise in Grade 4 scores may not quite be what it seems.

Again, we know of zero reason to think that anyone in Mississippi has actually done something wrong. But oh, what kind of journalism is this which goes from bad to briefly aware, and then tilts back toward worse?

There's a lot to learn in this recent story about the way our national discourse works. Journalistically, it's a story of the relentless appeal of Preferred Upbeat Storyline. It may also be a story about a never-ending lack of technical prowess and curiosity, in this case among education writers.

Diogenes is said to have searched for one honest man. In Walker Percy's debut novel, The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling explicitly conducts a "search" which was "what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life."

Way back in 1971, we were first told about outright cheating on standardized tests in a Baltimore public school. Ever since then, we've conducted an intermittent search.

That search has taught us that it isn't wise to assume that claims of "miracles" will turn out to be well-founded.

There's a lot to learn from this bit of history—a lot to learn about the way our feeble brains have conducted our modern national discourse concerning a wide set of topics. 

In this case, the cheating had been going on forever. Somehow, it had gone undiscussed!

Tomorrow: What we learned from two friends in 1971. 

Also, what we were told by a major testing executive roughly ten years later.


  1. Karen is innocent.

    1. If you want to support Karen, go donate money on her gofundme page. She is making big bucks over this incident, just like Kyle Rittenhouse does.

    2. The young man has a gofundme, too.

    3. Yes, it was formed only recently, to pay for an attorney that his family cannot afford.

    4. Karen, She’s a silver sun you best walk her away and watch her shine, watch her watch the morning come….

    5. Cecelia's real life name is Karen. That's why she has to ask.

    6. My real life name is Rapunzel.

    7. Why does the young man need a lawyer? Has he been sued? Arrested?

    8. Karen has been publicly identified. The young man has not.

  2. "And yes, we're talking about outright "cheating"—not about milder conduct which might be described as "test prep," or even as "teaching to the test."

    Somerby seems a little confused about how learning works. First you teach the material, then you test on it to be sure the students have understood and made it their own. ALL classes begin by deciding what to teach students, then they teach it, then they test on it. Good teachers then use tests to go back and re-teach whatever the students have missed or misunderstood.

    You cannot know whether students have learned without testing. About 10 years ago, cognitive science studies showed that the act of testing itself consolidates memory (due to the effort involved in retrieving information) and enhances learning. So, even if you gave a test and never looked at the results, the act of taking the test would be beneficial to students. This led to designing textbooks with "review questions" built in to the material so that students could engage in retrieval of what they had just read, thereby strengthening memory without formal testing.

    When there is corruption in every other human business activity, why should teaching and school administration be any different? The problem is making school funding and teacher evaluation dependent on test scores. The "high stakes" encourage cheating and it is thus unsurprising that someone somewhere would do it. Generalizing from a few scandals to the entire teaching profession, all schools everywhere, to the point where no progress can be trusted, is ridiculously stupid and massively unfair to the students and school staff who have worked hard to achieve real results. Stating, as Somerby has today, that no school improvement can be trusted, is simple-minded and extreme to the point that I must question Somerby's mental status. All-or-nothing thinking is not clear thinking at all.

    Atlanta is not Mississippi and not Alabama and not even Louisiana. Somerby admits that, but then he goes ahead and knocks the profession. As mh described, the NAEP is not subject to the same motivations to cheat and has little likelihood anyone bothered to cheat on it. Why then can Somerby not acknowledge the improvement is Mississippi? It has nothing to do with cheating and everything to do with Somerby's own bitterness, his incomplete understanding of why anyone cheats (odd in a teacher), and his desire to attack public institutions like our schools and those who go on to higher education (without cheating) and acquire expertise, even in the field of education.

    Today's essay is unhelpful and says more about Somerby's pathology than anything else. Stale cheating scandals in the 70s and 80s are no excuse to malign Morning Joe or the Mississippi schools. Somerby should be ashamed to have written something like this, revealing that he is not only a nihilist but someone who sees the worst in all and must turn to mud whatever he touches. It must suck to be Somerby.

    1. On the contrary, it must suck to be YOU. What a pathetic, annoying, and just plain bizarre figure you are. For years, a large part of your day-to-day life has been devoted to utterly dishonest, bogus, forced, and phony "criticism" and outrage. What about? Someone or something truly outrageous? Trump? War? The disregard and mistreatment of the poor by those in power? The imminent collapse of democracy or the environment? No, no -- none of those trivialities are worthy of your time and effort. You have bigger fish to fry. Namely, Bob Somerby. Every day you dream up utterly fatuous "criticisms" of Bob Somerby, a minor politics/media blogger. Do you not see how utterly empty and absurd your life is? How skewed your priorities? I think I know why you do it. You're old, lonely, starved for any kind of attention, any kind of human interaction. This blog is small enough that your utterly fatuous comments don't just get instantly buried among hundreds of others. So you get to feel "heard." Also, you know that the more annoying and absurd your comments are, the more likely you'll get a reaction. Ahh, yes, a reaction -- from another human being. It helps with the loneliness and the fact that no one can stand being around you in "real life."

  3. Dealing with students who cheat is part of teaching. Teachers are trained to respond appropriately. Dealing with those in business who cheat is part of business. There are laws and procedures to protect yourself and others from the cheaters.

    Somerby himself cheats as he writes his essays. He puts his thumb on the scale by leaving out things and manufacturing trivial misinformation, and even lying (such as when he says the media has not covered something when there are links to published articles). Or when Somerby says he doesn't read his comments and then ignores making corrections after getting something wrong.

    Does cheating (which was apparently discovered via normal procedures) undermine the entire testing process and invalidate everyone's scores? Not in any other context. So why must everyone be suspicious of everything in education? There is no good reason for that, except that Somerby's message all along has been strongly anti-education, anti-expertise, anti-information, much like the know-nothings of previous political times and much like the populism of Hitler (who destroyed the German university system, once the best in the world), and certainly like Trump, who has been described as the most ignorant man ever to become president. Knowledge undermines the conspiracy-theory-based disinformation and fantasy bubble occupied by Republicans. I sincerely doubt that either Somerby or Trump is in favor of kids learning to read well, because when they do, it will be much harder to pass off the lies needed to fool their base. That is why slaves were discouraged from learning to read, it is why women were long prevented from learning to read and become educated, and it is why dictators discourage education.

    Somerby's attempt today to undermine faith in public education is hardly anything a former teacher would do, absent some actual motive for keeping the public less literate. It isn't as if Somerby were urging any kind of public action to strengthen schools and help improve them in Mississippi or anywhere else. It isn't as though Somerby were urging readers here to vote in ways that would help education and those deserving black kids. It isn't as though he has ever talked about any actual school problems, much less remedies, even during covid when schools were struggling. So what is Somerby's game? Revenge or fascism or just a self-involved need to be right about whatever complaints he had about the Baltimore schools, akin to Trump's grandiosity and narcissism?

    Emphasizing the upbeat is what gives everyday people hope. Without hope, perseverance in striving is more difficult. Without striving, there is no improvement, no change, no achievement in the face of obstacles. Undermining the enthusiasm, hope, positive outlook of others is cruel, self-defeating, evil. Somerby has no evidence whatsoever that Mississippi cheated on the NAEP test. Kicking those who take pride in modest achievements is NOT what a good, decent person does.

    Thank God Somerby left the classroom. Someone with a knee-jerk need to puncture the balloons of others should not be around children. Cynics are not fit to nurture children.

    1. Somerby cheats? How much do you pay for his essays?

    2. The question is how much does he get paid?

    3. You think he’s cheating whoever pays him?

    4. Money is only one of many different motives. Why does Trump keep scamming when he has always had more money than any person could need?

      Somerby may be paid by the RNC, some right wing PAC, a laundered fee from some Russian Oligarch, or perhaps he is a zealot. There are Republican deep money sources who pay for this kind of stuff. Or perhaps he lives on his social security check and teacher's pension combined with family money, and writes this shit for the fun of it. More likely, Somerby is a narcissist, as many performers are, and liked being the "sage on the stage" while teaching, liked doing standup comedy for the same reason, and now likes still attracting attention to his "musings". As with Trump, even negative attention is better than no attention. It is a matter of personality type.

    5. OK then. Somerby writes what he wants to write, we read it or we don’t, but he’s not cheating anyone.

    6. Somerby is cheating himself.

    7. But he’s still losing.

  4. The ironic thing about the cheating scandal in Atlanta was this: “Between 2002 and 2009, eighth-graders' scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test jumped 14 points, the highest of any urban area.”

    In other words, there was real improvement in Atlanta, despite the cheating scandal.

    Somerby uses the word “boondoggle”, and it isn’t clear what he means. High stakes testing? The media’s reporting on testing? Using the word “miracle” to describe this: “Mississippi went from being ranked the second-worst state in 2013 for fourth-grade reading to 21st in 2022.”?

    That’s a significant improvement, whether you like the word “miracle” or not.

    In the case of Atlanta, it seems that both the media and law enforcement did their jobs in revealing the scandal and prosecuting the guilty parties.

    Somerby hasn’t discussed what may be the real boondoggle, which is the way public officials have tried to couple the fate of teachers and schools to test results in the wake of No Child Left Behind. The idea that “our schools are failing” or “our teachers are failing” gets a lot of traction because of this. Testing should be a tool to help schools help students, not to punish schools whose students tend to score less well.

    Why won’t he address what the issues might be with Mississsippi’s naep test results? He keeps implying things may not be as they seem there, even while acknowledging there wasn’t any cheating.

  5. The second amendment is evil.

  6. “It seems to us that the AP report blew right past a certain reform in Mississippi which may have created a situation in which that pleasing rise in Grade 4 scores may not quite be what it seems.”

    It is no mystery what he is referring to. He posted about this a while ago. But for some reason he won’t be explicit now, perhaps because there is new information that calls the original critique into question.

  7. "USA Today this March documented 1,610 cases of standardized test-score manipulation in six states and Washington, D.C., between 2009 and 2010."

    The No Child Left Behind Act was enacted in 2009. "NCLB was designed to address the concern that the American education system was lagging behind its international competitors by holding schools responsible for boosting student performance through mandated standardized tests and minimum performance benchmarks." In other words, school funding was made contingent on student performance on mandated standardized tests. Schools with low-performing students were especially in danger of losing their already inadequate funding.

    "All in all, more than half of D.C. elementary schools, including Noyes, showed evidence of adult tampering with students’ standardized test answer sheets under Rhee’s administration, which paid principals and teachers up to $12,000 in annual bonuses for raising test scores. "

    In Rhee's case, making $12K bonuses contingent on raising test scores created a motive for cheating. That is a substantial amount of money today, and was worth even more in 2010, especially to already underpaid teachers.

    When you create the conditions that motivate cheating, then cheating will occur.

    The motives for teachers to cheat became even worse after NCLB (2009-2010) when districts like the huge Los Angeles School District created a "value-added" measure and based teacher pay on year-over-year improvement by each student. The names of good and bad teachers were published in the Los Angeles Times, rated by student improvement. The scheme was abandoned when it was demonstrated that teachers who were good in one district became bad when switched to a low-income minority school. However, many teachers were distraught over the use of the measure and one exemplary teacher with strong evaluations and high praise committed suicide over being listed in the LA Times as a bad teacher. Others quit teaching before the evaluation method was changed.

    Teachers have been through a lot of turmoil. It is unsurprising so many have left the field, especially after being vilified during covid.

  8. "For one brief shining moment, everyone seemed to know that reports of miraculous test score gains shouldn't necessarily be taken at face value—and that teachers and administrators will sometimes engage in astonishing conduct in order to produce such gains."

    Reports that test score gains were the result of cheating no doubt protects Somerby's ego from having to confront his own classroom low test scores. Dismissing the accomplishments of others -- ALL others -- as cheating means that he need not feel discouraged because his own kids did poorly. He can absolve himself by saying that the others were no doubt cheating and not doing anything better than he in their classes.

    Teaching inner city kids is hard, even when prepared and trained, as Somerby was not. His few descriptions of things he did in his classes (such as watching inappropriate films about village children being poisoned by adults) make it sound like he had no idea how to help those kids, no idea what to do to improve his own classroom's test scores.

    And given that he thinks highly of himself (especially back then), if he cannot improve test scores then certainly others must have been cheating when theirs went up. Or else he might have to admit he was a piss poor teacher, and that would be intolerable to a narcissist.

    This is equivalent to when Somerby knocks Einstein because he cannot explain his work clearly enough for Somerby to understand it. So Einstein must be at fault. Similarly, if other teachers can improve their test scores while Somerby cannot, then those teachers must be at fault, cheating, because it cannot be Somerby's difficulties teaching low income kids that caused his own low scores. If Somerby cannot teach, then no one can, and it must be all cheating. Just like if Somerby cannot understand Einstein, then no one can, and it must be those blurb writers pretending they think Einstein's book is clearly written, faking it, cheating on the book jacket.

  9. Harry Litman is God.

    1. So Eric Clapton is no longer God? or is there more than one god?

  10. The logical take away from this is that Morning Joe’s measured praise for the Mississippi test results was the correct one.
    Yet for that response Bob has demonized
    Joe as an unfeeling monster.
    Bob is a weirdo.

  11. "In this case, the cheating had been going on forever. Somehow, it had gone undiscussed!"

    Here are some of the places it has been discussed:

    By the teacher's union:

    By local Baltimore TV:

    By book publisher John Wiley, Inc: (Cheating in School)

    By the Baltimore Sun:

    By CBS News:

  12. Defund the Supreme Court.

  13. We live in a barred spiral galaxy.