Opening arguments began today in the trial of 12 Atlanta educators charged in an alleged cheating conspiracy that came to light in 2009.
Prosecutors claim there was widespread cheating on state tests throughout the city's public schools, affecting thousands of students.
The case has brought national attention to the issue, raising questions about whether the pressures to improve scores have driven a few educators to fudge the numbers, but also about broader consequences.
The trial has also raised an interesting racial dynamic. Atlanta is a majority-black city. All 12 defendants are black, as is Beverly Hall, the former Atlanta superintendent. (Her prosecution has been delayed as she is facing treatment for advanced breast cancer.)
Some studies have shown that more racially concentrated schools are somewhat more likely to be caught up in these scandals. Part of the reason may be in the requirements of No Child Left Behind, the 2001 federal education law that mandates these tests.
That law places emphasis on the schools reducing the so-called "achievement gap," and contains sanctions for schools that fail to do so, up to and including closure.
Schools must report "adequate yearly progress" for groups that tend to struggle: racial and ethnic minorities, low-income students, English language learners, and those with learning disabilities.
That means the more of these types of students a school has, the harder it becomes to make adequate yearly progress. The potential for penalties for a school and its employees, is greater. This disproportionate racial impact is why there's a long history of civil-rights lawsuits opposing high stakes testing.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Opening arguments began today in the trial of 12 Atlanta educators. They're charged with cheating on state standardized tests. Prosecutor Fani Willis argued in the courtroom today that this was a widespread conspiracy.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRIAL)
FANI WILLIS: Many conspirators were needed because you can't make the target for the school system in the district by changing one or two tests. It won't work. You need a lot of people at a lot of different schools.
SIEGEL: The case in Atlanta has raised questions nationally about high-stakes testing and whether the pressure to improve scores has driven some educators to fudge the numbers.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Anya Kamenetz of the NPR ed. team has been reporting on this. She joins us now. Hi, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: When we say teachers were cheating Atlanta, not the kids, what exactly does that mean? What did they do?
KAMENETZ: It's pretty straightforward in this case. Prosecutors charge that teachers and principals have been erasing test papers - the wrong answers - and bubbling in the right answers.
MARTIN: So we have gotten used to the idea of standardized tests. There are more these tests in schools ever since the 2001 No Child Left Behind law. Atlanta is the most high-profile case of cheating on these kinds of tests, but is this something that's happening other places?
KAMENETZ: It's definitely not just in Atlanta. The former superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District is serving federal time for a similar kind of scandal. A government accountability report found that in the school years 2011 and 2012, 33 states verified evidence of cheating, and 32 of them invalidated tests as a result of that evidence.
MARTIN: All right. So teachers are changing test scores. This is clearly not a desired result of these tests, but have they created any positive change in the schools?
KAMENETZ: Well, any time you have a big sweeping policy change like this, there's going to be a range of responses. Daniel Koretz, who's a reporter at Harvard, has identified a range of seven responses by teachers to high-stakes testing. And the first few are really pretty positive - working more effectively, teaching more, working harder at getting the kids to work harder. Then there are more ambiguous responses - you know, shifting resources, including your time, to spend more time on the types of questions on the test.
MARTIN: Presumably, at the cost of other subjects that then go under-focused.
KAMENETZ: Well, yes. There you go. There are these trade-offs. We make these decisions to test math and reading. And therefore, there's more time for math and reading, less time for sciences and social studies - not to mention physical education and art. And then there's alignment - matching the curriculum to the material, coaching students, which a lot of people would say is an ethical no-no - like, giving them old copies of the test - and of course, outright cheating.
MARTIN: I take it that there are also concerns that schools and teachers are responding to the test in other ways - by, for example, focusing only on certain groups of students to change test scores.
KAMENETZ: Right. So under high-stakes testing, all that matters is the proficiency score - the number of kids who make the minimum cut-off on the test. And so the natural response - it's been identified as educational rationing or educational triage. It's to pick on the kids that are very, very close to passing the test. And you spend less time than with the kids who are, you know, going to ace the test and have no problem. And even more worryingly, you spend less time with kids that, in one school in Texas, were dubbed the hopeless cases.
MARTIN: Atlanta is a city with a majority black population. All 12 defendants in this particular case are African-American, and it is predominantly black students who've been harmed by dysfunctional schools in that city. Can you just lay out for us any racial implications of this case?
KAMENETZ: Well, unfortunately some researchers have found that more racially concentrated schools and more diverse schools with more minority populations are somewhat more likely to be caught up in cheating scandals. And part of the reason for that may be the structure of No Child Left Behind.
You know, they laudably mandated a focus on the so-called achievement gap. And that means if you have a school with more kids who are poor, more kids who are black or Hispanic, more kids who are English language learners that you are going to be struggling. You're really going to be under the gun as an educator, as a school leader to try to get the scores up on that test or face sanctions, closure. And it's for these reasons, actually, that there's a long history of civil rights groups and lawsuits opposing high-stakes testing.
MARTIN: Anya Kamenetz of the NPR ed. team. Thanks so much, Anya.
KAMENETZ: Thank you.
MARTIN: We were talking about the trial of 12 Atlanta educators charged with cheating on state standardized tests. Opening arguments began today. The trial is expected to last at least three months. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.