Georgia Educators Get Prison Terms for Roles in 'Data-Driven' Cheating Scandal

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Georgia Educators Get Prison Terms for Roles in 'Data-Driven' Cheating Scandal

A 2011 state investigation into the scandal found that widespread cheating was a result of politicians and school officials holding unreasonable targets for yearly testing progress that were to be met at any cost.

"Understanding the widespread 'gaming' of standardized exam results requires addressing its root cause," says FairTest's Robert Schaeffer. (Photo: Alberto G./cc/flickr)

Offering a stark example of what one expert calls "an inevitable consequence of the overuse and misuse of standardized exams," an Atlanta judge handed down tough sentences on Tuesday to 10 educators involved in a massive test cheating scandal that shook the district in 2009.

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

Three former top administrators were given maximum 20-year sentences Tuesday in the Atlanta school cheating case, with seven years to be served in prison, 13 on probation and fines of $25,000 to be paid by each.

Five lower-ranking educators — those who worked as principals, teachers and testing coordinators — received sentences of up to five years with at least one-year in prison and hefty fines ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. All the defendants were granted first-offender status, meaning their record would be wiped clean after they served their time.

Judge Jerry Baxter gave one final warning to educators Monday that they would face stiff punishment unless they admitted to guilt and waived their right to appeal. He delivered on that promise Tuesday, dolling out punishments to administrators Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts that elicited gasps and sobs from spectators in the courtroom.

A 2011 state investigation into the scandal found that widespread cheating was a result of politicians and school officials holding unreasonable targets for yearly testing progress that were to be met at any cost.

"APS became such a 'data-driven' system, with unreasonable and excessive pressure to meet targets, that [former Atlanta Public Schools superintendent] Beverly Hall and her senior cabinet lost sight of conducting tests with integrity," the report said.

In an op-ed published last week in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) public education director Robert Schaeffer explained further:

Understanding the widespread "gaming" of standardized exam results requires addressing its root cause. Nearly four decades ago, social scientist Donald Campbell forecast today’s scandals. He wrote, "(W)hen test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways." The horror stories in Atlanta and many other communities are case studies of what is now called Campbell's Law.

Many policymakers still ignore the most important lesson to be learned from Atlanta. Cheating is an inevitable consequence of the overuse and misuse of standardized exams. Federal, state and local testing policies put intense pressure on teachers, principals and other administrators. They create a climate in which educators believe scores must soar “by whatever means necessary, ” as the [Georgia Bureau of Investigation] concluded.

It is hardly surprising that more school professionals cross the ethical line. Across the nation, strategies that boost scores without improving learning are spreading rapidly. These include changing answers, narrow teaching to the test and pushing out low-performing students. These practices are immoral, unethical and, in many cases illegal. But completely understandable.

Indeed, as education expert Valerie Strauss has previously noted, Atlanta is not alone. Test cheating has been confirmed in 37 states and Washington D.C. and is driven by "pressure by politicians on educators to boost standardized exam results," according to Strauss.

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