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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
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Take a very close look at the test papers from some schools in Georgia and you may notice something. The answers, by-and-large, are correct, but state officials are looking into a suspiciously high number of eraser marks. Somebody changed a quarter of a million incorrect answers on test, after test, after test. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports on suspicions that somebody improved those all- important test scores.
KATHY LOHR: Many public schools in Georgia showed extensive eraser marks on their tests, but the district with the most problems was Atlanta. So, school officials appointed what they called a Blue Ribbon Commission to investigate. And it found no coordinated effort to manipulate the scores. But Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue characterized that investigation as woefully inadequate. So he launched his own inquiry.
SONNY PERDUE: This investigation will be both thorough and swift.
LOHR: More than 50 schools were flagged for cheating, but the district chose to investigate only a dozen. And many, including the governor, complained officials did not question enough teachers and administrators to find out who was responsible.
PERDUE: This is about seeking out a small group of people who have failed to hold up the high ideals that most Georgia teachers live by. And what has happened here, has stunted the growing and learning process for thousands of children.
LOHR: The tests are given to children in first through eighth grades. The results determine whether schools meet federal benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind Act. Good scores mean high praise and cash bonuses. Failure to meet standards could mean losing hundreds of thousands in federal dollars, and could cost teachers and administrators their jobs.
SHAWNA HAYES: What is happening? Are our teachers cheating? Is the administration cheating? Have we created a cheating culture? You know, it's so many things to think about as a parent.
LOHR: Shawna Hayes-Tavares has four children - and two go to schools that were called into question. She says her own kids knew there was a problem.
HAYES: My daughter came and told me, there was cheating all the time. I said what do you mean? She said, Mommy, children talked it all the time how teachers were cheating for them and giving them the answer, taking home writing assessment and the same exact topic would be on the test. And so we know it's been going on.
LOHR: Vincent Fort is a state Senator from Georgia, who says the commission originally set up by the district was designed to do damage control - to protect the image of the city, the schools and the superintendent.
VINCENT FORT: When you look at the governance issues, when you look at all of these issues, it makes you wonder whether or not there's a systemic lack of leadership and governance at the Atlanta public schools.
LOHR: Superintendent Beverly Hall, who was widely praised for bringing up Atlanta test scores and was named national superintendent of the year in 2009, declined to be interviewed for this story. At her state of the schools address in August, Hall said she was disappointed and would take action to restore the public's trust.
BEVERLY HALL: This is a painful chapter in our history and now we have to move beyond the crisis to getting on with the business of educating our children.
LOHR: Still, testing experts acknowledge that these high stakes tests create immense pressure for principals and administrators to improve scores, so there can be a kind of desperation that leads to cheating. James Wollack is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin. He says how Georgia deals with this, sets a precedent for other states.
JAMES WOLLACK: Other schools should be looking to Georgia to say what should we be doing to reduce the likelihood of this happening here in our district?
LOHR: Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.
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