AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Cheating in Atlanta high schools? It's the same old story

Atlanta’s school system has barely begun healing from the self-inflicted wounds of its massive cheating scandal, so it came as a surprise when new reports of improprieties surfaced in the past several days. The system’s own investigations found that grades had been improperly awarded to students at three Atlanta high schools: South Atlanta, Carver and Washington.

The reaction can be summed up in two words: Not again?

But, like the tampering with standardized tests in elementary and middle schools, improprieties were widespread in high schools during the administration of former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall. The same pressures that drove administrators and teachers in the lower grades to cheat – fear of demotion or firing, unrealistically high performance standards and so on – influenced staffs at many Atlanta high schools to do the same.

In October 2011, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on widespread cheating on standardized tests, falsifying of attendance records and changing of grades to award undeserved diplomas – and to help administrators meet their district-imposed goals.

This tyranny of metrics led principals and other administrators to adopt policies that seemed to have little to do with making sure students actually were learning. At one high school, the principal set the minimum grade at 70 – barely a D, but passing, nonetheless. At another, the principal decreed that no more than 10 percent of students could fail any class, regardless of their grades. Administrators instructed teachers to ignore student absences, which could prevent their graduations. And at several schools, teachers obtained advance copies of state-mandated graduation tests so they could give students the answers before officially administering the exams.

One school went so far as to block several students from taking one of the high school graduation tests.  The exam was given in the 11th grade, and even though these students were juniors, administrators claimed they actually were in a class of their own: grade 10 ½.

No such grade exists, of course, but the ruse allowed the school to avoid the consequences of failing grades by several students – enough, administrators apparently hoped, to allow them to meet their goals.

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