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When Teachers, Not Students, Do The Cheating

Opening arguments began today in the trial of 12 Atlanta educators charged in an alleged cheating conspiracy that came to light in 2009.

Prosecutors claim there was widespread cheating on state tests throughout the city's public schools, affecting thousands of students.

The case has brought national attention to the issue, raising questions about whether the pressures to improve scores have driven a few educators to fudge the numbers, but also about broader consequences.

The trial has also raised an interesting racial dynamic. Atlanta is a majority-black city. All 12 defendants are black, as is Beverly Hall, the former Atlanta superintendent. (Her prosecution has been delayed as she is facing treatment for advanced breast cancer.)

Some studies have shown that more racially concentrated schools are somewhat more likely to be caught up in these scandals. Part of the reason may be in the requirements of No Child Left Behind, the 2001 federal education law that mandates these tests.

That law places emphasis on the schools reducing the so-called "achievement gap," and contains sanctions for schools that fail to do so, up to and including closure.

Schools must report "adequate yearly progress" for groups that tend to struggle: racial and ethnic minorities, low-income students, English language learners, and those with learning disabilities.

That means the more of these types of students a school has, the harder it becomes to make adequate yearly progress. The potential for penalties for a school and its employees, is greater. This disproportionate racial impact is why there's a long history of civil-rights lawsuits opposing high stakes testing.

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