TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Widening school cheating scandals illustrate the power of public records

One of the under-appreciated secrets to being a master public-records reporter is figuring out exactly what types of statistics government agencies keep. The fact is, if something is capable of being measured, chances are there is a federal, state or local bureaucrat who is in charge of measuring it — and every one of those measurements is recorded somewhere within the reach of a freedom of information request.

(A personal favorite is the data library kept by the Centers for Disease Control. Getting a CDC employee badge must be like getting a “License to Ask Really Weird Questions.” There’s essentially no way that the human body can be paralyzed, burned, skinned, trampled, dismembered or dissolved that someone at the CDC isn’t counting. You need to know where your state ranks on the rabid bat scale? Yeah, it’s in there. If you are a horror-film connoisseur, or maybe thinking about writing one, you really owe it to yourself to spend some time with the CDC’s “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” — and by the way, who wouldn’t want to call a source and say, “Hi, I’m a reporter from Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.”)

A great public records story sometimes starts with something as simple as, “Hmm, I wonder if anyone has ever checked to see if …”  It helps to start out with a healthy imagination about the various ways in which dishonest or incompetent people can screw things up.

For example, “I wonder if anyone has ever checked to see if teachers and principals are rewriting their students’ test scores so their schools will look better.” You have to be pretty cynical even to entertain this idea, if you think about it. You have to be willing to accept that people are capable of doing elaborately stupid and self-serving things to conceal the fact that they aren’t succeeding at their jobs.

Fortunately, Heather Vogell of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was willing.

In this Q-and-A interview with the National Education Writers Association, Vogell describes how her AJC team crunched test-score trends to uncover the suspiciously steep improvement in standardized testing scores in dozens of Atlanta city schools. The resulting state investigation documenting widespread cheating has blown through the Atlanta Public Schools like a tsunami, sweeping out the district school superintendent and leading to pink slips for 178 implicated school employees.

Many of the obstructions the AJC team encountered will sound familiar to any education reporter, from high school to the pros, including schools that impose bogus privacy objections to obstruct access to data, or just lie and conceal records outright. While not every student media outlet will have the assistance of a database editor who can build programs to analyze mountains of records, Vogell’s tips are useful no matter how well-funded your investigation is:

  • Publish incremental stories, don’t just wait for the big finish. Tipsters who see the first story will come forward and furnish information that may lead to places you never suspected.
  • Get help from an expert. If the data is just too specialized or “jargony” for you to make sense out of, find someone who can — it might be a professor or an accountant or a statistician, but don’t be afraid to call in reinforcements if you need them.
  • Activate your skepticism. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. In Atlanta’s case, it was the suspicious rate of improvement shown by students who re-took the high school graduation exam after failing it — in some schools, the pass rate on the second try was 100 percent. If your instincts are telling you “that CAN’T be right,” then you’re onto a story.
Even much smaller-staffed organizations than the Atlanta newspapers — including a Philadelphia news service with three full-time reporters — are breaking cheating-scandal stories in their own communities, because all it takes to get started is the good fortune to be in a school district that’s done a data analysis of erasure patterns. If the district has such a document — they’re typically generated by the testing company and shared with the superintendent’s office — then it’s a gettable public record.
There is every reason to believe more stories are out there. As the New York Times reported last summer, fudging on standardized tests has been confirmed in at least six states, and education experts suspect that the trend is linked to heightened financial pressure for schools and teachers to show measurable progress in student achievement. CDC, are you listening? This sounds like a mappable epidemic!