This week a criminal trial of a dozen public school officials in Atlanta, Georgia accused of cheating to improve standardized test scores got underway with expert witness testimony about what it would take to fudge answers on the state assessment exams. The trial brings to a head a lengthy investigation with origins to a similar scandal that rocked Atlanta schools in 2011.
Atlanta Educators Accused of Cheating Standardized Test Scores
The allegations accuse 12 former teachers and administrators of conspiring to improve performance on standardized tests by erasing incorrect answers and replacing them with correct ones. Prosecutors called the alleged cheating scandal a “widespread, cleverly disguised” plan carried out in an effort to protect jobs and improve bonus awards. With state standardized exams key evaluation criteria for education officials who make personnel and financial decisions, the accused teachers and administrators profited from higher test scores by students in their schools.
The trial will be highly public and politicized, and animosity between defendants and accusers will be evident during the testimony of several whistleblowers scheduled to take the stand for the prosecution. In the opening days of the trial, several former teachers have testified that they were fired or otherwise punished for complaining about cheating on standardized exams. Although the testimony of former teachers who claim to have witnessed cheating will be important, prosecutors will need to demonstrate how the defendants could organize the scandal.
To add testimony to the eye witness accounts, prosecutors have called on experts to review the standardized tests allegedly manipulated, and explain what evidence points support the accusations that the defendants conspired to dishonestly raise exam performance.
Cheating Expert Witness Testifies for Prosecution
In the early stages of the trial of 12 Atlanta Public School teachers accused of cheating on state standardized exams in order to improve performance measures, prosecutors called on Gegory Cizek as a testing expert witness. Mr. Cizek is a psychometrics professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has written several books on preventing and detecting cheating on standardized exams. As an expert at identifying tactics used to manipulate standardized test scores, Cizek was called to help jurors understand what evidence suggested foul play on the allegedly manipulated tests.
Cizek testified that the field of testing is a science that that has evolved over several years, and explained to the court the investigation techniques he employed when evaluating the facts of this case. Central to Cizek’s analysis was the unusually high occurrence of erasures on the exams in question. Cizek pointed to a number of wrong-to-right erasures on the tests, indicating that students initially selected a wrong answer, but erased the selection to later fill in the correct bubble. Cizek testified that most kids don’t erase answers on standardized exams, saying, “On average, you might get one [erasure] on a test of forty-something questions.”
Prosecutors used Cizek to establish that statistically speaking, the number of wrong-to-right switches on the standardized tests was unusually high, and argued that the alterations were not the result of student’s changing their answer. According to the state’s case, the defendants were responsible for the wrong-to-right corrections, and each of them either participated in or oversaw the process of changing exam answers to improve performance.
Defense attorneys countered that statistics alone are insufficient evidence of cheating, reinforcing a point that Cizek himself admitted during his expert testimony. As the trial continues, prosecutors will look to buttress Cizek’s suggestion that the exams had been manipulated with eyewitness testimony and other evidence of cheating.