There was a time when cheating in school meant kids passing notes or copying off each other's papers. Then in the high-tech era, teachers had to watch out for students passing answers via cell phone text messages.
But now there is a brand new cheating scandal Georgia schools must address, this one possibly instigated by school officials themselves.
Earlier this month, the Governor's Office of Student Achievement flagged schools statewide for potential discrepancies in their Criterion Referenced Competency Test scores. The exams are used to determine students' academic progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
A state audit found an unusually high number of answers changed from wrong to right in 4 percent of the state's classrooms. Of the 1,800 schools included, 370 showed high occurrences of wrong answers erased and changed to correct answers. The worst of those, labeled "severe," include 73 schools at which 25 percent or more of classes had a high rate of altered tests.
The idea that administrators might do this came to light when a pair of DeKalb County principals were found guilty of doing just that. Two-thirds of Atlanta's schools are under suspicion for an unusually high number of changed answers.
It's important to note that no one can confirm that cheating occurred in all cases, and there are other potential explanations. Erasures on a test aren't a clear indication that someone tried to fudge the results, just reason enough to check into it further. Stronger evidence of wrongdoing is needed before punishment can be meted out.
No Hall County schools ranked on the state's list of schools with an overly high rate of changed answers.
One Gainesville school, Gainesville Exploration Academy, was among those flagged as "severe." School Superintendent Merrianne Dyer investigated and found that tests from first- and second-grade classes, which generally have a higher rate of erasures, were the chief concern. Also, tests from special education and English-language students were packaged together in larger groups than usual, perhaps leading to the higher rate of changed answers.
The system also has added paraprofessional teachers' aides to help monitor students during tests in smaller groups to see that they are taken properly.
Dyer has asked the school board for an independent investigation into the tests outside of the state agency's. That's a good way to ensure that the findings are valid and not tainted by pressure from within the school community.
Because the CRCT is so vital in determining student achievement, it is crucial that parents know their students' scores are valid and that the school is administering the tests properly. Whatever one may think of NCLB or standardized tests in general, it is the standard now used to gauge whether students have learned what they need to advance to the next grade.
The No Child law was passed in 2001 to create a nationwide standard that would forever eliminate the long-held practice of social promotions. That laissez-faire approach left too many students unprepared to function in society when they left school. Anecdotal tales of high school graduates who could barely read and write sparked the push to make underperforming schools more accountable.
Now that this is the norm, it is important to know that the exams are true measurements of what students learn. If some administrators are changing test answers in their favor, it would appear to be another way of shuffling students along to the next grade to become someone else's problem.
No doubt, teachers and principals face renewed pressure to meet AYP, and the reliance on test scores to judge their worth is problematic, a debate worth having. Yet that does not justify falsifying exam answers.
Rest assured, any administrators who changed answers didn't do it with the students' best interests at heart.
Such deception merely perpetrates the illusion that kids are learning when they are not. Anyone stooping that low is out to save their own skins and keep their schools off the dreaded Needs Improvement list. Any educator who values student achievement over their own job security would not consider such a dishonest and ultimately selfish act.
Two administrators at DeKalb's Atherton Elementary School were found guilty of cheating in this manner; they lost their jobs and faced criminal penalties. Others found guilty of such fraud should no longer be allowed to teach in our state. If their moral compasses are that jammed by their own ambition, they have no business molding young minds. When school officials set that kind of example, what message does that send to our children?
Yet whether these educators should face criminal charges is subject for debate; the General Assembly has so far balked at such a bill offered by the governor. It raises valid concerns over who might be responsible for ordering such changes and whether such an act can be considered criminal intent. Other states have such laws, but there appears to be no consensus in the legislature.
But that shouldn't keep local officials from taking strong action to keep violators from ever working in our school systems again. Losing one's career is a harsh but proportional consequence.
We're glad to see Dyer and the Gainesville system taking these concerns seriously and seeking solutions. All school systems facing the probe should dial back their defensive postures and do the same to assure parents — and taxpayers — that everything is being done to maintain the highest level of learning and set an example for ethical behavior in our classrooms.
Anything less than that is just cheating all of us.