Cheating scandal now exposed as national disgrace

So it's not just Georgia.

Did we really think the biggest public school scandal ever exposed stopped at the state line? Anybody who professed disbelief that educator cheating is rampant from coast to coast would sound like the police prefect in "Casablanca" who is shocked, shocked that gambling is going on.

The reality might be the education equivalent of baseball's Black Sox scandal of 1919, when players conspired with racketeers to throw the World Series. Except that the stakes are incalculably higher.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with the nonprofit American Institutes for Research, conducted a nationwide investigative survey like the smaller-scale study that exposed the Atlanta scandal.

The AJC analyzed standardized test results from 69,000 public schools, with familiar results: improbable and in some cases statistically impossible spikes in test scores. And in school after school, students' scores plummeted when they moved on to the next grade -- or when scrutiny eased up.

Overall, the study concluded, 196 of the 3,125 largest school districts showed statistical evidence of suspect test results that put the odds of those results being legitimate at more than 1,000 to one.

"In nine districts," the newspaper reported, "scores careened so unpredictably that the odds of such dramatic shifts occurring without an intervention such as tampering were worse than one in 10 billion."

While many of the inflated test scores showed up, predictably, in larger and poorer school districts, some of the results didn't fit the profile.

Charter schools, for instance, were twice as likely to show "improbable" scores as other schools: "Charters, which receive public money, can face intense pressure as supposed laboratories of innovation that, in theory, live or die by their academic performance." Red-flag test results also came out of a trendy and exclusive "gifted" public school in Manhattan.

"The findings," the newspaper wrote, "call into question the approach that dominated federal education policy over the past decade: Set a continuously rising bar and leave schools and districts essentially alone to figure out how to surmount it -- or face penalties."

Pressure on teachers and administrators might be unrealistic, unfair and probably unprecedented. Educators' incomes, and even their jobs, rode on test results. The familiar "no excuses" mantra brooks no consideration of the realities of trying to educate at-risk children. ("No exceptions, no excuses" was the marching order of disgraced former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall.)

But when it comes to cheating, "no excuses" has to be more than just get-tough political rhetoric. Blaming the pressures and the process gets us nowhere. The overwhelming majority of educators do not cheat -- and testing, as a consistent, verifiable tool of educational assessment, is essential.

Whatever the flaws in the process, cheating educators should be educators no longer. No excuses.