Weird History

How And Why Atlanta Public Schools Teachers Tried To Game The 'Testing For Funds' System  

Genevieve Carlton
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In Atlanta, GA, in the mid-2000s, 140 teachers and 38 principals worked together to change student test scores. When the cheating came to light in 2009, The New York Times called it the largest teaching scandal in American history. But to one math teacher, the cheating scandal was about something smaller: keeping a middle school open in one of Atlanta's poorest neighborhoods. Damany Lewis knew that changing test scores was wrong, but he worried the pressure to improve test scores was harming students. He became involved in a massive cheating scandal that impacted nearly 200 educators at dozens of Atlanta schools.

The stakes were high - schools failing to meet No Child Left Behind benchmarks faced possible closure, while schools that met their targets earned bonuses for teachers. Many educators felt they had to alter test scores or else lose their jobs. In schools struggling with poverty, teachers reasoned that changing scores was a victimless crime. But after a major investigation, some of those educators ended up in jail.

Unlike the McDonald's Monopoly rigging scandal, some still defend the teachers who participated in the Atlanta cheating scandal. A whole new audience will soon get to weigh in on the story of Damany Lewis and the cheating scandal, as a movie adaptation is in the works with Michael B. Jordan signed on to star.

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Atlanta's Schools Were In Danger Of Being Shut Down

In 2006, before students took their exams, teacher Damany Lewis and other educators at Parks Middle School in Atlanta reviewed the standardized test questions that would determine their school's fate. After the test, at the principal's insistence, Lewis also inspected students' answers.

Lewis and another teacher decided to correct a few wrong answers, bumping up students by one or two points if they were close to the 58% line needed to pass the math assessment. If the school failed to reach this threshold, it faced a shutdown by the state.

Rumors swirled in the Atlanta Public School system about teachers in multiple schools "adjusting" scores to raise their averages. Lewis and other teachers justified their actions by reasoning that they wanted to keep schools open.

The Atlanta Superintendents Pushed Schools To Hit Their Targets

The Atlanta Public Schools superintendents pushed for a data-driven approach to hit their targets. Christopher Waller, principal at Parks Middle School during the scandal, told The New Yorker, "All decisions have to be made by data - you have to be baptized in it. I lived it, slept it, ate it."

After Waller served as principal for only a few months, superintendent Michael Pitts warned him, "The way principals keep their jobs in Atlanta is they make targets."

Pitts set high standards for Parks. In a mid-year report during the 2005/2006 school year, he declared, "Please understand that no excuse can or will be accepted for any results that are less than 70% of school-based target acquisition."

Many teachers and administrators said the intense pressure to raise test scores led to cheating at dozens of schools.

Many Students At Atlanta's Public Schools Struggled With Poverty

At Atlanta Public Schools, most of the students struggled with poverty. A full 75% of students lived near or below the poverty line, making it difficult for them to focus on school. At Parks Middle School, teacher Damany Lewis washed his students' laundry and let them sleep at his house if they felt unsafe at their own home. One student moved in with Lewis.

With so many problems plaguing the schools, less than 40% of Atlanta Public School students graduated from high school. And some teachers worried the strict benchmarks set by No Child Left Behind made educating students more difficult.

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The Teachers Created A Process For Their Massive Cheating Operation

At Parks Middle School, under principal Christopher Waller's direction, teachers began systematically cheating on the state's standardized test. In 2007, Waller got the testing coordinator to leave the building after students completed that day's section of the exam. Six teachers then snuck into the testing coordinator's office during recess to correct wrong answers.

By 2009, even more teachers were grabbing finished tests to change student answers.

Damany Lewis participated in the cheating. He justified it by saying Waller would only be at the school temporarily - the school had seen three different principals in five years. If he didn't participate in the scandal, Lewis thought he might lose his job.

Lewis didn't even tell his wife, another teacher at Parks, what the cheating teachers were doing. When his wife's students received the top test scores, Lewis kept his mouth shut. "I wasn't going to burst her bubble," he said. "I was, like, 'Good job. Keep going strong.'"