An investigative report published in Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution found indications of standardized test cheating in school systems throughout the U.S.

The seven-month long investigation of testing data examined 1.6 million records from almost 70,000 public schools nationwide. Suspicious score increases, high numbers of erasures and other irregularities were uncovered in about 200 school districts.  The indicators found were similar to those discovered in Atlanta Public Schools, says the AJC.

Seventy of the school districts studied by the AJC were in Washington. For those results click here.

Atlanta as cheating ground zero

The Atlanta Journal Constitution has broken news before about test cheating.  In 2009, the paper reported “statistically unlikely” test score gains at some Atlanta schools.  A state review determined that some cheating had occurred in more than half of the district’s elementary and middle schools.  About 180 teachers have been implicated in the scandal.

So far, one teacher, Damany Lewis, has admitted to cheating and been fired. Other educators suspected of cheating who have not accepted a “resign or be fired” deal are being brought before a tribunal to hear their cases and determine what actions will be taken.

Former University of Georgia Chancellor Dr. Erroll Davis was named interim superintendent of APS last year. He replaced Dr. Beverly Hall.  Hall resigned in June 2011 after 11 years as the head of APS. She was the recipient of praise and awards for her role in the district’s increased graduation rates and higher test scores.

Officials from APS and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation are still investigating what has become known as the “biggest cheating scandal in American history,"  but according to the AJC, Atlanta is not alone in its testing irregularities.

A nationwide problem

According to the AJC, the paper’s investigation does not prove that any widespread cheating occurred, but “it reveals that scores in hundreds of cities followed a pattern, like, in Atlanta, indicated cheating in multiple schools.”

The report says that in nine districts, test scores fluctuated so much that “the odds of such dramatic shifts occurring without intervention such as tampering were worse than one in one billion.”  Houstonschools, the report says, experienced test score jumps two, three or more times than typically seen in one year.  When these students went on to the next grade, their test scores plummeted, so the likelihood that the score increases were due to learning is slim. A spokesman for the Houston school district, however, questioned whether cheating was the cause of all the irregularities that the AJC found.

The AJC says that 196 of the country’s 3,125 school districts had enough irregularities that the odds of these irregularities happening by chance alone are worse than one in 1,000.

The paper’s statistical analysis of test scores red-flagged more than one in six tests inSt. Louis and one in seven in Detroit.  Officials in the St. Louis district have acknowledged the unusual score changes, but say that cheating is not the cause. Detroit officials have said that score increases were due to “better teaching,” according to the report.

According to the investigation, “dozens” of mid-sized school systems, including those in Gary, Indiana, East St. Louis, Illinois, and Mobile, Alabama exhibited “suspicious” tests in high concentrations.

No Child Left Behind and student outcomes

Standardized testing is a key point of No Child Left Behind, the bipartisan federal legislation signed into law ten years ago.

At the heart of the law is is a mandate for accountability and measured student outcomes, derived primarily from state-administered standardized tests that are given annually in grades 3 through 8 in math and reading.

Critics say that the law promotes “teaching to the test” and that it cultivates a climate for cheating, especially when teachers’ and administrators’ jobs and pay are tied students’ performance on tests.

But supporters say that there needs to be accountability for student learning among teachers and administrators, and that reliable, valid testing is one way to establish that.  They call for stricter test-taking measures.

Regardless of the possible reasons behind them, inaccurate test results also erode public confidence in school systems and the credibility of public information.

And experts agree that when cheating happens, it’s the students who suffer.  Schools with inflated test scores may look good on paper and earn praise for their staffs, but low-performing students who are entitled to tutoring and other educational options lose out when their scores don’t reflect their deficiencies.

Read the AJC report: “Cheating our children: Suspicious scores across the nation” here.