The cheating scandal that torpedoed Atlanta’s star status in education circles raises a number of red flags about education reform that should prompt some soul searching in Louisiana’s own reform circles. Their own darling of reform – New Orleans – is subject to the same pressures that brought about Atlanta’s humiliation.

For those who missed the news reports, here’s the back-story: In July, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reported that of 56 schools investigated, 44 had participated in organized cheating on the standardized tests that education officials use to judge the quality of school instruction. The report named about 200 teachers and principals. More than 80 admitted various allegations, including changing students’ answers on tests that determined whether the students would be promoted to the next grade.

One teacher described a culture of fear and intimidation that resembled an organized crime family. The data-driven accountability method used to monitor student performance led to a cheating ring that may have included some high-ranking school officials. By the end of July, four area superintendents were replaced and even a retired school superintendent, Beverly Hall, had been implicated. The report says she either knew of the cheating or should have known. (Hall’s salary included fat bonuses for improved test scores so she would have had plenty of self-interested reasons to ignore complaints of cheating.)

In fact, the pressures of school reform have created a good deal of incentive to cheat, hide and manipulate all the way up to the office of a state superintendent of education so it’s not really so surprising that the very professionals who are supposed to discourage cheating by students do it themselves. This unintended consequence could happen in any state. In fact, Education Week Online reported that the Pennsylvania Department of Education determined in 2009 that about 60 schools had suspicious to practically impossible test results. More troubling was the revelation that the state never followed up on the investigations. The state’s failure to act has even more serious implications.

Reports of routine cheating on test scores by schools, even in other areas of the nation, could erode public trust in statistics that show significant gains in the performance of New Orleans schools, especially charters. Many of the city’s schools have shown significant improvements in test scores over the years, and those showing the highest test scores have received all kinds of wreaths of honor. Stellar test scores attract visitors (such as President Obama) and financial gifts from celebrities (such as Oprah).

Atlanta raises the possibility that New Orleans’ progress is another house of cards just waiting to be toppled.

A New Orleans public high school teacher connected to a Catholic order of nuns told me once that she couldn’t figure out how so many of her truant math students with poor skills managed to pass the math portion of the graduate exit exam in summer programs. Though she didn’t accuse anyone of cheating, her suspicions were abundantly clear. In another instance, a New Orleans parent told me that she’d once been assured by school officials that her child would pass LEAP tests, one way or the other. She took the assurance to mean that the testing was rigged in some way.

So far Louisiana officials seem to be monitoring test scores for obvious cheating; occasionally a principal is suspended while an investigation ensues. Moreover, the gradual nature of test gains in New Orleans – about five percent a year for four years straight for the Recovery School District – implies that reforms are having positive effects over time as one would expect.

Nonetheless, considering the pressure on principals and teachers to show results, cheating on high-stakes tests could seem like an easy way out of public censure and job loss. There are ways to cheat without changing answers.

In addition to erasing wrong answers and replacing them with correct answers, Atlanta teachers reported being intimidated into participating in practices such as placing weak students near strong ones so they could copy answers and basically giving answers in advance by way of practice tests.

The “teaching the test” method is probably more common than anyone would like to think. The Times-Picayune reported recently that the state audit that led to threats of closure of Abramson Science and Technology School included interviews with students who said that the state’s standardized tests were easy because they had taken similar practice tests beforehand. Such review could be good teaching or it could be a type of cheating, depending on just how similar the practice questions were. Abramson’s closure, however, wasn’t linked to cheating on tests. It was closed because someone connected to the school allegedly tried to bribe the education official conducting the investigation.

 Atlanta teachers said they cheated because they were terrified of losing their jobs. No excuse is acceptable, of course, but anyone who holds a mortgage knows that losing a job is a catastrophe. Even those thick-skinned enough to endure the censure of their fellows could get trapped by financial and family needs.

 The temptation to inflate test scores could get even stronger in the future as many states, including Louisiana, go to “value added” evaluations, which means that pay and job retention are tied to how well a teacher’s individual students do on standardized tests. Such “reforms” may seem reasonable but in urban school systems, such as New Orleans, teachers are all too often held accountable for the scores of children who live in troubled homes, are undernourished and frequently absent.

Atlanta’s fall from grace raises numerous questions about the advisability of relying too heavily on standardized tests to judge quality. To ensure real improved school performance, reformers must be mindful that pushing too hard could do more harm than good. At some point, banner-carrying reformists may need to give teachers a break.

The Atlanta Constitution’s continuing questions about unlikely gains in student test scores led to a state investigation that revealed organized cheating in at least 44 schools by principals and teachers.

Test scores in New Orleans, a similar “reformed” urban environment, continue a gradual climb, bringing national praise to schools that were once some of the worst in the country.