Cameron Smith was a fifth-grader with straight A’s when her school, Fickett Elementary, was caught up in a national cheating scandal.
The story started in 2001, when scores on statewide tests across Atlanta began improving greatly. The superintendent, Beverly Hall, was hailed as a highly effective reformer, winning National Superintendent of the Year in 2009.
Then it all came crashing down. A report ordered by Georgia’s governor found, based on score anomalies, that some form of cheating occurred in more than half the district’s elementary and middle schools. Prosecutors found that some schools held “erasing parties” behind closed doors to alter answer sheets.
Thirty-five educators were indicted in 2013 on federal racketeering and other charges; most took a plea deal. Eleven were later convicted. Beverly Hall died of breast cancer in 2015 with her criminal case still pending. Mayor Kasim Reed called it “one of the darkest periods in the life of our city.”
That was the end, as far as the rest of the country was concerned. But for students like Smith, the story was just beginning.
The scandal left in its wake the huge question of what to do about children passed on from grade to grade with artificially inflated test scores.
Smith, who’s now a junior at Therell High School in southwest Atlanta, is pretty sure that didn’t apply to her. “Honestly, in sixth grade, I was like, my teacher probably didn’t cheat on my test because I’m always top in the class.”
By the time the story came out, she had gone on to middle school. She says her family didn’t hear much beyond what was on the news. “I have a younger brother and sister, and my mom was very concerned to make sure we were all squared away.”
Initially, there was no systematic attempt by the school district to intervene on behalf of these students.
But in 2014, a new superintendent, Meria J. Carstarphen, arrived and vowed to “create a new culture at APS” and “put the needs of our students first.”
The district hired Georgia State University researchers to track down the students in question. Most have grown out of the system, but this school year, about 2,200 are still enrolled.
Outwardly, for those students, it has been business as usual over the years. Whatever consequences were visited on a handful of teachers and administrators, students like Smith never had their grade promotions or test scores individually re-evaluated.
However, a professor at Georgia State University named Tim Sass followed the future performance of APS students whose answers were manipulated. He found “relatively robust evidence” that their scores in later years were depressed, particularly in English Language Arts, even below what you would expect from students in generally low-performing classrooms.
The academic disadvantage was sizable — Sass compared it to what you might expect from having a rookie teacher vs. a teacher with five years’ experience during a year of middle school.
Perhaps surprisingly, the study did not find lingering effects on attendance or behavior among students who had their test scores falsified.
But, Sass says, these kinds of studies aren’t fine-grained enough to get at parents’ or students’ feelings of betrayal, anger or shame.
“A horrible lie”
The memories are vivid for Shana Smith [no relation to Cameron], whose daughter was a fifth-grader when the cheating was uncovered.
“I don’t appreciate them cheating,” she says. But it’s more than that: “I have an issue with them saying that that’s the only way they feel our students can pass. They didn’t put the work in that was needed to help these students. They really didn’t learn anything in fifth grade, they were just the victim of a horrible lie.”
Having identified the students, APS had next to decide how best to help them. The answer wasn’t obvious, because the effects of the scandal were potentially complex — academic, social and emotional.
Last year the district launched a project called Target 2021 — 2021 being the final expected graduation date for the last of these students. It’s designed to provide a range of support: in-school support coaches; outside tutoring services; and connections to college, like help filling out the FAFSA form.
APS turned to an organization called Communities in Schools for help reaching the Target 2021 students. CIS is a federation of nonprofits with a presence in 25 states.
It places coordinators in schools who provide students with academic and social counseling; help navigating the courts, immigration authorities or the foster care system; and connections to outside organizations for help with health, housing, mental health or other needs.
“This community has gotten to the point where they want to move on and hopefully positively correct a wrong,” says Frank Brown, the executive director of CIS of Atlanta. “Nobody can imagine the depths of the harm done. The kids were being sacrificed to keep up a political front, and we don’t have any understanding of the long-term psychological effects.”
At Therrell High, where Cameron Smith is an 11th-grader, Sonja Mangham is the new CIS student-success coach.
She’s helping students on her Target 2021 caseload create academic and personal goals. These could be anything from “graduate on time,” to “find a job,” to “move in with my other parent.”
She runs a “breakfast club” for homework help. There’s a lunchtime program to discuss life skills; service learning projects out of school; and a perfect-attendance program with a monthly drawing for a gift card to Foot Locker or Wal-Mart or dinner at Applebee’s. (Tracking and improving attendance has been a major focus in Atlanta Public Schools and across the state of Georgia.)
It’s standard-sounding enrichment stuff. But, Mangham says, some students and their families are not so pleased to be singled out for special attention.
“I think a lot of them do not understand … [they think] ‘I myself cheated,’ ” she says. “Or parents think it’s something that they did wrong. So I have to explain to them: It does not have anything to do with you. They have a negative connotation associated with it.”
“It’s not a remedial program,” counters Tiffany Franklin, the school district’s Target 2021 director. “We have students in the group who are on track to be National Merit Scholars. I’m talking to parents, and once they see all the advantages they’re excited.”
Cameron Smith is one of those high-achievers.
Smith attends Target 2021 after-school tutoring for her AP class. Mangham has helped her connect to ACT and SAT prep classes at a local community college, and information about applying to the University of Georgia.
Once cheerleading season is over, she hopes that Mangham can help her find an after-school job, too. “I can always use extra help. SAT classes aren’t usually free, so I thought it was great.”
For parents like Shana Smith, whose daughter is now in 11th grade at Maynard Jackson High School, rebuilding trust will be a long road.
“I feel that with these programs that they bring in, that they don’t do what they say they’re going to do,” she told NPR Ed. But, she tries to do her part by being an involved parent. “In order for the students to be successful, there has to be three parts. The parents have to be involved, students and teachers. It’s never too late to help any student who’s willing to do the work.”
Cameron Smith says, sure, some of her classmates in the Target 2021 program grumble: ” ‘I don’t think I need this.’ … ‘Why are they doing it?’ ” But she’s looking on the bright side.
“Honestly, something is better than nothing. Even if they didn’t help me in sixth through eighth grade, they care enough to help me through high school, which is a really critical time.
“I guess it was better late than never.”