ATLANTA (AP) -- School administrators and state education officials across the country — Michigan included — have received complaints about cheating on standardized tests echoing those in Atlanta, but authorities often treat them as isolated or aberrant events, according to a newspaper report.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which in 2009 exposed widespread cheating on achievement tests in Atlanta Public Schools, reported earlier this year that 196 districts nationwide exhibit patterns of suspicious test scores similar to those found in Atlanta. The paper is reporting now (http://bit.ly/SbZkzY) that some of those districts have responded the same way Atlanta did: by minimizing, isolating or glossing over improprieties.
The Journal-Constitution said it reviewed about 130 files of cheating investigations in Mobile, Ala., Dallas, Houston, Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis and East St. Louis, Ill. -- all cities the newspaper identified as having, along with Atlanta, extreme concentrations of suspicious test scores.
In some cases, investigations uncovered wrongdoing and led to punishment for a handful of educators. In others, inquiries glossed over glaring irregularities. Nearly always, officials focused narrowly on a single classroom or, at most, a single school -- the approach the Atlanta Public Schools used for years before a scandal over systemic cheating erupted three years ago.
In Mobile, middle-school students taking an achievement test in 2008 discovered that someone had changed their answers from a previous testing day, according to state files. They told the teacher, who told the principal. But according to the state's report, the principal's response was "sleep on it." Two days later, the report says, the principal told the teacher that "we're going to let the situation rest, and we need to keep quiet."
Mobile Superintendent Martha Peek, who presides over the largest school district in Alabama, told the newspaper she'd rather have bad scores than illegitimate ones.
"We can fix academic problems," she said. "You cannot fix problems with integrity."
But Peek said she was unaware that, at roughly the same time as the cheating case unfolded at Scarborough Middle School, close to a dozen other Mobile schools posted test scores with inexplicable gains and decreases.
Investigating allegations of cheating remains a low priority in many states, despite high-profile scandals in Atlanta, Philadelphia, the District of Columbia and other school districts.
Just 10 states even have a budget for such investigations, according to a recent survey of state education agencies by the Journal-Constitution. And at least 19 states don't look for high numbers of erasures or other changes that correct students' answers. Seven states decided to begin or resume the analyses after Atlanta's cheating scandal, in which the state found a virtually impossible number of wrong-to-right erasures.
The newspaper cited numerous other examples of cheating allegations and the way they were investigated.
In East St. Louis, cheating was "accepted practice" at Annette Officer Elementary School, the district said in a recent report. Test scores rocketed and plunged over several years at the school, a telltale sign of tampering.
But it wasn't until this spring, after a teacher reported improprieties, that the district opened an inquiry.
Among the things it learned: The culture of cheating was so advanced that administrators had developed a code: When outsiders came to the school during testing, an announcement would go out over the PA system: "Will Abraham Lincoln please come to the office?" This served as a warning to staff members to stop cheating.
The school's principal and two instructional coaches later quit, bringing the investigation to a close. But the district saw no need to check other East St. Louis schools for irregularities, Beth Shepperd, an assistant superintendent, said last week.
"This was public in our community," Shepperd said. "If any teacher at another school felt there was a concern, that teacher had an opportunity to come forward."
The newspaper also cited a case at Detroit's Bethune Academy, where an anonymous teacher told Michigan officials that the principal "directs the staff to have the students write the answers on a piece of paper instead of their answer documents. Then the central office collects all the answer documents and pieces of paper and goes into the office and changes the answers."
The state did not investigate the claim for nine months and, after a visit to the school during testing, concluded that there was "no material evidence of the allegations."
Of the eight cities the newspaper examined, only Gary, Ind., refused to turn over any files regarding allegations of test cheating. After months of negotiations with the newspaper, the district last week finally said it had no files to turn over.
In the AJC's computer analysis of school tests scores nationwide, Gary had some of the most extreme fluctuations in scores from year to year -- typically an indicator of testing irregularities.