APS Cheating Report: The summer's saddest page-turner
In the spring of my daughter’s second year in the Atlanta Public Schools system, I got a new job and we prepared to relocate out of state. I went to meet with her teacher to talk about the upcoming move. The teacher’s first response left me taken aback.
“Can she stay for the Iowa test?”
No questions about the new school or my child’s well being. A move across country is a big deal for anyone, especially a second-grader, but all the teacher wanted to know was whether our relocation date could be revised so that my kid, a good test-taker, would be there to bump up the averages for her class when they sat for the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) the next week.
“No,” I said. “There’s enough stress as it is, and we have a tight deadline for the move.”
“Please?” she asked. “Isn't there any way she could be here?”
That exchange took place back in 2000, a year after superintendent Beverly Hall took over APS, and well before Hall and APS earned national accolades for steadily rising results in a struggling school district. In the intervening decade, the ITBS made way for a new test, the CRCT, and a national act, No Child Left Behind, put even more pressure on schools to hit test-score goals.
That teacher’s plea echoed in my mind as I dug into the 800-plus page report on how APS teachers and administrators systematically cheated by correcting CRCT tests. In contrast to some of the more damning details in the report — my favorite is the principal who wore gloves when correcting tests so her fingerprints could not be traced — an APS teacher asking my kid to stick around as a ringer to skew stats on her classroom’s scoreboard seems innocent enough.
I’m sure that, like me, thousands of other former and present APS parents, have spent the past two days reading the report on APS cheating that was publicly released Tuesday by the governor’s office. This is no ordinary government document. Sure, it recaps a year’s work by a team of special investigators, and distills 2,100 interviews and 800,000 documents, but it’s a page-turner more shocking than any Stieg Larsson thriller (Swedish capitalist conspiracies have nothing on a school system likened to the “mob”) and more depressing than any Russian novel (“I had to give them the answers; Those kids were dumb as hell,” one teacher told investigators.)
Reading the report, it’s easy to get caught up in the bizarre plot twists created by the adult cheaters. Parks Middle School teacher Damany Lewis told investigators that he swiped test booklets from sealed packages that he opened with a razor blade. He made copies and carefully covered the traces of his tampering by using a lighter to re-seal the shrink-wrap around the test packets. There was a “mafia” atmosphere throughout APS, said a teacher at East Lake Elementary School, where, according to the report, the principal told staff she would “sue them out the ass” if they disparaged her to investigators. The report reveals a clique-ridden culture in which administrators and teachers clamored to “make the floor,” and sit in the designated spots for higher-scoring schools at the annual APS gathering, rather than being relegated to the nosebleed seats with teachers from schools that didn’t make the CRCT cut.
But the real tragedy of the revelations is not the report’s allegations of pettiness, poor judgment, and outright nefariousness on the part of the adults. The real tragedy is the reality of how Atlanta kids were let down by the grown-ups who should have helped them. Students who could have benefited from summer school or special ed got lost in the test-score shuffle. Good kids and honest teachers who did not cheat but did well through hard work, are indelibly tarnished by the scandal.
It’s a hell of a story, but at heart, it's just plain sad.