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.