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'Anger' In Atlanta As Cheating Scandal Investigated


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we will bring you a poetic tweet. That's a poem of 140 characters or less, sent by none other than the celebrated Nikki Giovanni. It's part of our celebration of National Poetry Month, and we'll hear it in a few minutes and you'll find out how you can contribute, too, if you'd like. That's later.

But first, we want to talk about cheating in standardized testing. As you've probably heard by now, some 35 educators in Atlanta were indicted last week over suspicious test results there, dating back to 2005. The allegations follow years of reporting from local newspapers, detective work by state investigators, and testimony before a grand jury that alleged that teachers and administrators changed incorrect answers as a way to raise test scores.

In just a few minutes, we are going to hear about a previous standardized testing scandal that spread from coast to coast. That news actually originated in a doctor's office in West Virginia, with the help of a nurse and an X-ray technician. We'll hear more about that in a few minutes. But now, we're joined by NPR's Kathy Lohr - about the situation in Atlanta. Kathy, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: How widespread is this scandal believed to be?

LOHR: Prosecutors are saying that more than half of the district's elementary and middle schools were affected by this - you know, conspiracy to cheat; to change these answers to make the tests appear - make the students and the schools appear to do better than they were really doing.

MARTIN: And what, exactly, are they alleged to have done, and how many people are supposed to have been involved in this?

LOHR: Well, 35 - as you mentioned - former teachers and administrators, principals were charged in this conspiracy - you know, indictment. But really, there were, I think, around 200 teachers that at one point, were suggested to be involved. Some 80-some pled guilty to these charges earlier. And the state investigation found this - couple of years ago. So this has been percolating for some time, and it's just now that the indictment came out.

MARTIN: What's been the reaction among students and parents there, you know, in Atlanta? You kind of - this seems like a rather heavy cloud to have to go to school under, every day.

LOHR: Well, you know, the original reaction was a lot of anger. And I think that the indictment has brought up this anger again, and this feeling that well, how did this happen here? Why would teachers do this? Why would administrators do this? And mostly, you know, why would the superintendent - a former superintendent, Beverly Hall - condone this kind of thing? Now, I have to say, she says that she did not condone this cheating, and she didn't know it was going on. But there's still a sense of, you know, this is hurting our children, that the kids are the ones who didn't get the help they needed and are now reading at grade levels that are not commensurate with what they should be.

MARTIN: What are prosecutors saying about the motivation, here? When there have been allegations about this kind of thing in the past, people generally say, well, you know, teachers don't go into this for the money. So what is believed to have been the motivation? Is it money?

LOHR: It is money, in a couple of different ways. First of all, many of the teachers, administrators would get big bonuses if their schools, if the students improved from year to year, because they were trying to make certain targets under the No Child Left Behind Act. And so if those principals, if those teachers, if the superintendent raised scores to a certain level, there were bonuses tied to that. So there's money there.

And then the other thing is, there were sanctions if those schools didn't meet those goals. At this point, I think that there are a lot of parents that are frustrated, and there are other teachers that are frustrated because, you know, 90 percent of the teachers in this district - it's a big district, more than 50,000 students - were doing the right thing. And so they kind of feel upset that they're affiliated with this.

MARTIN: What happens now? Are there specific steps that school officials are taking to address this - the taint of this scandal; to address the security of how tests are actually administered and scored and more broadly, the sense that if people needed to cheat in order to get acceptable test scores, then maybe something's wrong with education - I mean, with how education is actually proceeding there. So what - are there specific steps that school officials are taking, to address all these issues that have been raised by this?

LOHR: The current superintendent has said that, you know, it's going to take a long time to recover - for the reputation of the district to recover from this. But they are doing things to try to improve that reputation, including - they said that the testing procedures are spelled out differently; and the tests and the answer sheets are kept more secure than perhaps they were in the past.

There's a hotline that's been established for anybody to report what they consider to be unethical behavior. Teachers are now required to sign - take ethics courses in order to be employed. Now, not that that is going to change everything in the district, but, you know, there seems to be an idea that there may have been a culture of cheating, previously. And so they're trying to erase that.

As far as testing is concerned, in general, I think there are a lot of people that believe - not only in Atlanta, but across the country - that there's just too much emphasis placed on the test. The teachers' union in Atlanta came forward - in the state of Georgia came forward and said, basically, that schools are spending 100 days a year doing test preparation and actual testing, and that's just way too much; and that the schools have too much at stake just tied to these state tests. So I think there's a lot of people who are questioning - sort of how to change this in a broader way.

MARTIN: NPR's Kathy Lohr is reporting on the Atlanta school testing scandal. She was kind enough to join us from Atlanta.

Kathy, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LOHR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.