Massive Teacher Cheating Scandal Erupts in Atlanta


An investigation into Atlanta’s public school system has uncovered evidence that teachers and principals have been secretly erasing and correcting answers on students’ tests for as long as a decade. A state investigation found that 178 educators at 44 of the district’s 56 schools engaged in cheating. The report is a huge blow to an urban school district that for years was hailed as one of the country’s most successful due to increased student performance.
From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Superintendent Beverly Hall and her top aides ignored, buried, destroyed or altered complaints about misconduct, claimed ignorance of wrongdoing and accused naysayers of failing to believe in poor children’s ability to learn.

For years — as long as a decade — this was how the Atlanta school district produced gains on state curriculum tests. The scores soared so dramatically they brought national acclaim to Hall and the district, according to an investigative report released Tuesday by Gov. Nathan Deal.

In the report, the governor’s special investigators describe an enterprise where unethical — and potentially illegal — behavior pierced every level of the bureaucracy, allowing district staff to reap praise and sometimes bonuses by misleading the children, parents and community they served.

The report accuses top district officials of wrongdoing that could lead to criminal charges in some cases.

A local TV station has posted the entire report on its website, which includes the following nugget:

Among the other findings, the report stated that the changing of answers was often done at weekend gatherings, or so-called erasure parties. The report stated that children were denied special-educational assistance because their falsely reported CRCT scores were too high, and during testing, teachers pointed to the correct answer while standing at students’ desks.

This is the second teacher scandal to erupt in a large metro area this year. In March, a USA Today investigation found evidence of teacher cheating among some of D.C.’s highest-performing public schools. Teacher cheating is a subject we’re pretty familiar with at Freakonomics. Levitt and Brian Jacob investigated teacher cheating in Chicago schools. Their findings were detailed in Chapter 1 of Freakonomics. Since Chicago schools would destroy the physical tests shortly after they were taken, Levitt and Jacob had to come up with their own method of detecting cheating, rather than use erasure analysis. So they developed new tools for identifying strings of unlikely answers. Read the full version of their paper here. It would be interesting to see what Levitt and Jacob’s methods would turn up when applied to Atlanta’s decade of altered tests, which fortunately for investigators, remained intact.

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  1. fraac says:

    Isn’t this just human nature? Isn’t the real question “Why don’t we assume this is going on everywhere?”

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 6
  2. Jflycn says:

    Try this:

    I have to cheat, because of the standard tests.


    It’s not my fault. It is the fault of the standard tests.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 12 Thumb down 9
  3. RR1White says:

    The important thing here is to keep the standards set by No Child Left Behind, keep the pressure on. Sure, there are unethical people in positions where they don’t belong who can’t actually improve education, who can’t actually do the job they were hired to do, and that are completely without honor. Keeping the pressure on will enable us to find them and sweep them away. And maybe this time, the boards and superintendents that are responsible for hiring their replacements will pick actual qualified and competent people that are upstanding and will set a good example for our children.

    NEVER accept this as “human nature”! While there are people like this, there are many who hold themselves to a higher standard.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 22 Thumb down 22
    • David says:

      Making schools/teachers accountable to the government is all but useless. Want kids to succeed? Then support education reform based on school choice, when schools/teachers are accountable to parents that choose where their child and child’s tuition go, then you will have real improvement

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1
    • yomamma says:

      “keep the standards set by NCLB”? do you know what the standards are? to have 100% of our nations children literate (in english) by 2014. including the special education children with severe cognitive delays, and children who immigrated to America who have never spoken english in their lives. the “standards” set forth by NCLB were designed to make adults who have never condisered the educational process feel confident about the intellectual future of their country without requiring them to understand anything. these “standards” you want to keep are impossible and have nothing to do with actually helping children learn. it is based on the idea that one can legislate progress and it will occour. let’s make it illegal to be less than seven feet tall and then by next year we wil have a nation of basketball players! progress!

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  4. Toothy says:

    No Child Left Behind!

    Thumb up 7 Thumb down 10
    • Nathan says:

      You do know that NCLB results in an increase of testing. Too much testing is actually *detrimental* to education. And of course, it offers plenty of incentives to cheat, and cheating doesn’t help, either.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 8
    • Kayg says:

      NCLB is leaving everyone behind. Rather than measure everyone by the same cut score, we should be measuring gains of individual students. How can I expect a student in the 10th grade to be successful on a rigorous science, math, etc. test when he/she is reading at a 1st or 2nd grade level. It’s not impossible, because I have helped students in that situation achieve passing scores. However, it hurts to see students become discouraged! As an educator, I refuse to give up on children, period! We really need to revamp how we measure student success. SN: why aren’t we training students in our high schools for skilled based jobs like plumbing, etc. Send college bound students to college and train others to enter the work force. Other countries do it and they are out scoring us in Math and science.

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  5. MikeT says:

    These tests are an assessment of the school not an assessment of the students. Having the school administer the very tests that will be used to measure them and be used to apply significant incentives is, frankly, irresponsible.

    The tests need to be administered by an independent body.

    Consider it this way:

    “I sent the students home with final exams and told them to take them, grade them and let me know what they got. Everyone got an A. What a wonderful crop of geniuses!”

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 39 Thumb down 1
    • RR1White says:

      You know, there are so many standardized tests and industry certification exams with very rigorous controls and procedures to prevent cheating that it is kind of amazing that a school district/state would have a process that makes cheating so easy. Especially after the first Freakonomics came out…

      When I took the Security+ exam, I had to practically strip to go into the testing room, they place you at a computer with no one taking the same test adjacent to you, the order and selection of your questions is randomized the moment you start your exam, the person supervising the exam doesn’t know you or anything about the exam so they couldn’t help (or hurt) you even if they wanted to, the exam room is under recorded surveillance, and on and on. Good luck cheating on that one.

      Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1
  6. Paul says:

    Not that there is a fix-all to cheating, but wouldn’t it minimize cheating if teachers swapped classrooms during the exams? Granted, if administrators are complicit in the cheating, then it may require a more drastic measure to be sure of the fidelity of the tests. Overall, though, it seems like having teachers proctor exams for classes other than their own would be a simple, no-cost preventative measure and thereby create a situation in which changing answers requires a conspiracy rather than presented as a simple, tempting opportunity.

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3
    • Paul says:

      Regarding the access of completed tests (or, perhaps, tests not taken that could be accessed and filled out by nefarious cheaters…): it also would be beneficial to secure the tests so that they cannot be removed from school grounds. Also, a basic, rather uncomplicated fix could be to administer the test in various forms such that the questions are identical but appeared on the test in random order (say, have test booklet A, test booklet B, etc), which would make it more complicated to change blocks of answers. Additionally, some of the testing could be done via computer. While probably not every student could be tested electronically, surely most schools have a computer lab space in which a suitable sample size could be randomly selected as a control group.

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    • Robbie says:

      Actually, in most cases, teachers were not assigned to be in the room with any class on their own grade level. This seems to imply that any erasures took place after the tests were turned in. I guess it all depends on how much work the administrative staff was willing to put in to make their school look better. This scandal goes a lot deeper than just a teacher walking around her students advising them that the answer to #5 is C. Different tests and random proctors implies that someone was attempting to control the cheating but was not quite successful.

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      • Paul says:

        Apparently, the penalty for altering tests (cheating) was perceived to be far less dreadful than having students perform well on the standardized tests. One of a few things must be altered in this equation for this behavior to change: Increase the penalty for cheating, decrease the incentives for high test scores, or increase the security of the testing materials.

        Re: No Child Left Behind – I think it is a heartfelt idea. Unfortunately, when you look at the actual practice of NCLB, the “average” scores and “improvement required” continually shift upward based on previous years. It is not a cut-off score that is used to measure effectiveness but rather a variable average score based on previous test results in the school. Essentially, the evaluation system of NCLB is based on voodoo math rooted in political motivation. As the system runs its course, mathematically every school (EVERY school) will be a “failing” school based on the NCLB standards.

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  7. Steevn says:

    Good suggestions. Another possibility one is to increase the incentive not to cheat, by increasing the penalty for cheating.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
  8. AaronS says:

    Have to agree with RR1White: You don’t ease up on the standards because there is cheating. This lets us know that we have a problem in our schools–kids are not able to pass the test unaided. This is surely part the responsibility of the teachers. Now that these bad teachers, caught cheating to cover up their failure, have been discovered, we can FIRE THEM and get in a new batch that will hopefully live up to a higher ethical standard.

    It seems to me that the best way to do this is to ensure that each test booklet is different. Perhaps we could ask the SAME questions, in the SAME order…but put the answers in random order? Thus, if a student tries to cheat, he/she may put “A” because of their neighbor, but that will be the wrong answer for them. Moreover, when the teachers try to “fix” the answers later, they would have the overwhelming task of having to read EVERY SINGLE ANSWER to ensure that they had made the right choice–they could not just say “The answer to number 17 is D.”

    What a shame that these kids have been taught the worst academic lesson of all: CHEATING. Shame on these teachers! They should never teach again. As far as I’m concerned, the superintendent who created such a culture of underhanded practices ought to be sent to jail…if not Siberia. She sent the message that the way up is to cheat…but we’re about to demonstrate the REAL LESSON…that cheaters never win.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 6