A few weeks ago, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called public school employees across the country cheaters. The paper published a high-profile Sunday story, pimped across the nation, that said its seven-month investigation revealed irregularities in test scores that could not be explained away by chance. In other words, there was a reason for these test score fluctuations beyond "welp, sometimes they're right, sometimes they're wrong." The paper noted high up in the story that its number-crunching didn't prove cheating had occurred in every instance, but it all but said it, saying "... 196 of the nation's 3,125 largest school districts had a high degree of suspicious results on standardized test scores, which could point to instances of cheating." The report's title? "Cheating Our Children."
This came in the wake of the AJC's series in which it proved systemic cheating on tests in Atlanta Public Schools.
After the "Cheating Our Children" story, though, I wrote a way-too-long blog post calling the story's central thesis into question. How, I asked, can you say that these public school educators in Houston, Nashville, Dallas, and 193 other school districts had suspicious test scores when you admit in the story's third graph that "the analysis doesn't prove cheating"? Oh, I guess because of the next sentence: "But it reveals that test scores in hundreds of cities followed a pattern that, in Atlanta, indicated cheating in multiple schools."
Oh! Well, if it proved it in Atlanta, then, by all means, let's call teachers and administrators across the country cheaters.
But wait! There was a reason the paper needed to do this, also explained high up in the story. It's because these poor cheating rubes across the country exist in "[a] tainted and largely un-policed universe of untrustworthy test results."
My post went into detail about how the report had been angrily disavowed by some of the largest school districts named, many of which examine their own test results for cheating in a more rigorous way than the AJC did. (Dallas, for example, had been examining its test scores for years in a much more detailed fashion and had fired teachers because of its findings, but the AJC didn't contact the city's school officials until the Friday before publication and asked no questions related to the story.) I also criticized the paper for hiring a marketing firm to trumpet the report to TV stations across the country before even contacting some of the school districts, among other less-coherent ramblings.
Why did this bother me so much? Because I feel as though public school systems are like piñatas for most newspapers, and they only cover them as an investigative beat, never as an explanatory beat. I saw it in Dallas, and to my mind I saw it on a grand scale in this story.
I'd called one of the data specialists on the report to ask him questions for my blog post, assuming, like in most corporate monoliths, that he'd have to run the request up the chain and have a bigwig call me back. I didn't hear back until two days after my post ran.
Well, I sort of heard back. The AJC's managing editor wrote an email to my publisher and cc'ed me on it, complaining that my post was "erroneous, misleading, and contains many false assertions." He was right about one thing: I quoted a testing expert and said he had advised the paper and had seen all its data. In fact, he had only seen data for Ohio, and wasn't officially an advisor to the paper. (What the editor didn't say: That expert still doubted the story's central premise.)
Look, calling me out for being an idiot is easy, and it should be done often. But the paper still hadn't addressed any of my concerns, which I laid out in the not-altogether smartass-free email that I sent back. I asked several specific questions about the story, including:
• When was each large school system notified? Why wouldn't you give them plenty of time to go over the data with you?
• How do you respond to [my main] point: Group data can show irregularity, but you can't attribute that to cheating. And do your four experts agree? And if that is true, why run the piece?
• Why not let the impact of the story speak for itself? Why hire a marketing firm to trumpet it to TV stations before some large districts have even been contacted?
• Do you honestly think a series called "cheating our children" doesn't inherently accuse these districts of cheating?
• Does it give you pause that some of these districts have been doing student-level and erasure analysis for years and firing teachers, and they are the ones most vociferous in their denial?
There may be good answers for all these questions. (To me, the paper's follow-up story two weeks later answered none of these.) I'm still waiting for a response. But I'm not holding my breath — mostly because the editor replied, "We're done," and then told me that response was "not for publication." Oops. I cheated.
Eric Celeste is Editor-in-Chief of Creative Loafing Atlanta. He won the 2005 Association of Alternative Newsweeklies first-place award for media criticism.
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