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News Update

Atlanta Overhauls Testing after Cheating Scandal

In the aftermath of the nation’s largest standardized test cheating scandal, 35 Atlanta Public Schools educators, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall, were criminally indicted for changing student answers on high-stakes state tests. The pressure of high-stakes testing and teacher evaluations led these educators—most of whom have bonded out of jail—to bend the rules, and now, districts nationwide are reassessing testing procedures to ensure it doesn’t happen to them.

Erroll B. Davis, Jr. became superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools in July 2011, when the scandal was revealed and Hall resigned. He believes that administrators must identify risks that come with high-stakes testing, and add procedures to manage those risks. “If inappropriate behavior is discovered, the sanctions should be predictable, swift, and severe,” Davis says. And in Atlanta, “the risk certainly was not managed.”

In the two years since the news broke, the district has implemented strict testing protocols. “There should be automatic triggers when test scores materially change during short periods of time,” Davis says.

Previously, teachers had easy access to tests in their classrooms, and could erase wrong answers before sending them back. The district’s new testing protocol includes:

-Securing testing materials before, during and after a test, keeping them in a locked place under video surveillance

-Rules for handling test materials from distribution to shipping back, with specific people, time frames, and time stamps

-Students putting completed answer sheets in an envelope with a time stamp.

Along with the testing protocol, the district implemented an ethics program, with two trained ethics advocates at each school, to ensure that ethical concerns are brought to administrative attention. Davis also raised expectations and qualifications of incoming teachers and principals. And he implemented broad remediation programs for struggling students, as well as high school credit-recovery programs.

In 2012, the district was recognized by the governor’s Office of Student Achievement for the rigorous new test standards. “We’d like to say they guarantee there won’t be cheating, but we can’t ever say that,” Davis says. “But now people understand the ethics of cheating, and are going to think a little harder before they try next time, having watched 180 educators be exited from these premises.”

Roslyn (N.Y.) Public Schools is another district touched with a scandal: in 2011, a former student was involved in the widespread New York SAT cheating scandal. Superintendent Dan Brenner says the district has openly discussed this and the Atlanta cheating scandal with teachers and staff, knowing high-stakes tests are a growing part of the education system. “The best way to make sure cheating doesn’t occur with teachers is to give them a sense of confidence that we’re in this together, and it’s not us against them,” Brenner says. “If there are areas of weakness, it’s our job to make them stronger, not to make individuals feel that they are so accountable that one misstep causes a draconian response.”

Training is important for prevention, says Kelly Henson, executive secretary of the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. “It doesn’t matter if you agree with the tests or how they’re being used—there are no acceptable reasons for cheating,” Henson says.