In 2009, the news broke that some Atlanta public schools cheated on a massive scale on a standardized test called the CRCT.
How massive? Forty-four out of 56 metro ATL schools were involved, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which took the lead in dissecting the scandal.
An incredible 178 teachers and principals were found to have changed incorrect answers in order to boost test scores. By boosting scores, they increased their chance of bonuses and promotions.
Thirty-five educators actually face criminal charges, including racketeering, a charge most often used against mobsters.
As the cheating was in progress, former Atlanta Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall, one of the indicted 35, was named Superintendent of the Year in recognition of the school system's, uh, remarkable improvement in CRCT scores from 2002-2009.
(The real criminality may lie in the fact that most of the accused are on paid administrative leave as they await trial. But that's another column.)
In terms of sheer volume and ballsy egregiousness, it's one of the largest scandals in U.S. history. The fact that few people followed the story at the time is just as much a reflection of widespread cynicism toward public education as it is our miniscule national attention span.
The trial of the first of the 35 educators, Tamara Cotman, began last week. (The other 34 won't be tried until 2014; Cotman invoked her right to a speedy trial.)
The timing of her trial, though coincidental, is symbolically rich.
The Atlanta cheating scandal was the misbegotten spawn of the No Child Left Behind Act, a Bush-era monstrosity. While I in no way condone the cheating, such a scandal was inevitable given the extraordinary fiduciary pressure from No Child Left Behind to keep standardized test scores high — essentially, to incentivize cheating.
The Atlanta scandal was also a harbinger of No Child Left Behind's defanging by the Obama administration, allowing states to opt out, which Georgia did last year.
While No Child Left Behind has been, well, left behind, the CRCT test, its main vector for benchmarking, remains. (Anyone remember AYP, "Adequate Yearly Progress?" Good times.)
Soon the hated CRCT will be phased out in favor of a new test. Its passing will be mourned like that of polio.
Which new test remains to be seen. Originally, the new test was going to be the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), named after the 25-state consortium which collaborated on developing it.
PARCC was to reflect Georgia's adoption of the so-called Common Core Standards, a curriculum intended to help level the educational playing field from state-to-state.
Forty-five states have adopted Common Core, making it something very close to a de facto federal curriculum, and something any parent will approve if they've ever had the sobering experience of transferring their child from Georgia public schools to those of a state like New York — only to see their star student have to take remedial classes just to catch up.
Development of the PARCC test was funded by a federal grant. Actually administering PARCC is twice as expensive than the CRCT. Which in the eyes of the Tea Party activists who drive Georgia politics, is two strikes against it.
There's a governor's election in Georgia next year...
See where I'm going with this?
Governor Nathan Deal, in an early bid to counter a primary challenge from the right, has withdrawn Georgia from PARCC in response to a groundswell of disapproval against it and Common Core from Tea Party activists leery of any federal standard on anything, ever. In some quarters, Common Core is considered the educational equivalent of Obamacare and treated with the same almost hysterical contempt.
(Cue my usual reminder that Georgia is a state so stubbornly individualistic that during the Civil War we almost seceded from the Confederacy.)
There are undesirable federal standards, like No Child Left Behind, and desirable ones. Common Core is one of the good ones. But some observers think Deal's PARCC pullout is a move towards a pullout from Common Core itself.
One local public school teacher, who chose to remain anonymous, tells me:
"Any attempt to nationalize education standards is a positive one. Common Core is such an attempt. Nationalizing certification standards for teachers would be a logical step after that," she says.
"The reason the state of Georgia is backing away is cost. The PARCC tests that measure Common Core cost twice what the CRCT costs. This Common Core issue will now become part of Deal's and State School Superintendent John Barge's campaign for the Governor's Mansion."
Tellingly, when announcing the PARCC pullout, Deal mentioned precious little about education, focusing on money:
"Georgia can create an equally rigorous measurement without the high costs associated with this particular test," said Deal. "Just as we do in all other branches of state government, we can create better value for taxpayers while maintaining the same level of quality."
I'd like to think opposition to Common Core is based on sound principles of self-governance, fatigue of standardized testing, and a concern for responsible oversight.
But my own fear, shared by many observers, is that given Gov. Deal's alarming track record of cronyism — go ahead, Google "Nathan Deal" and "cronyism" — our new standardized test will end up having a disturbingly close financial connection to one of his political friends and benefactors.
No Crony Left Behind, as it were.
Cheating is cheating, and incentives to cheat take many forms — some easier to spot than others.