Atl. cheating scandal renews school reform debate

The Atlanta public schools are embroiled in a massive cheating scandal. It's a situation that's rippling far beyond the city's borders, because the alleged cheating involved the same sort of standardized tests used all over the country.

Most surprising is that it's not students who are accused, but 178 principals and teachers. Fifty-six schools were investigated, and cheating was found in 44, or nearly 80 percent, as CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reports.

It's a scathing report: A decade of systemic cheating in Atlanta's school system by the adults. Dozens of educators erased wrong student answers on state standardized tests, and inserted the right ones.

In all, investigators accused 38 principals of cheating and said 82 of the 178 educators they identified as part of the scandal confessed.

"When educators have failed to uphold the public trust and students are harmed in the process there will be consequences," said Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.

The motive for cheating? It was to show phony progress at often troubled schools, what the report calls "the pressure to meet targets in the data-driven environment."

Regardless, some parents are calling for heads to roll.

Atlanta's scandal is the biggest in recent years, but other school systems, in Baltimore, Houston and Detroit, have had isolated cheating issues on state-wide tests.

Educator Diane Ravitch, author of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education," blames it on a federal law that links funding with test performance.

"We have a terrible federal law called No Child Left Behind that says that all schools have to have 100 percent of their students proficient in reading in math by the year 2014 or their schools will be shut down," Ravitch said.

VIDEO: Atlanta testing scandal and "No Child Left Behind"

In Atlanta, the warning signs were there, but potential whistle-blowers were bullied, or worse. At one Atlanta high school, former teacher Paul Landerman saw a teacher helping 50 students change test answers. He reported it. The next day, he says, he was fired.

"The greatest value inside that system is loyalty to the system," Landerman said.

The report is very critical of Beverly Hall, the school system's former superintendent. Atlanta schools showed such progress during her term that in 2009, Hall was named America's superintendent of the year.

But investigators say Hall either knew of the cheating, or should have. She has denied that, but in her retirement video last month blamed other employees.

"I am confident that aggressive, swift action will be taken against anyone who believes so little in our students and in our system of support that they turned to dishonesty as the only option," Hall said.

Atlanta's interim school superintendent promised that anyone who cheated or was responsible for covering up the scandal will not work in an Atlanta classroom again.

As for whether there could be worse punishment for the cheaters, a standardized test is a government document. Altering one in Georgia can be a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.

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