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BANFIELD: A senator and a teacher's union leader say it is time to investigate a possible nationwide school cheating scandal. "The Atlanta Journal Constitution" looked at public school test scores in all 50 states. And the paper found suspicious results and red flags in 196 of the nation's largest school districts. Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson calls the report, quote, "troubling." But he can quote himself because he joins me now live by phone.
Senator, thanks very much for being with me.
This is distressing because when you hear about school cheating, you think it's the kids. But not this time. It's the schools. Do you have a handle on how big this problem is, sir?
SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON (R), GEORGIA (via telephone): Well, "The Atlanta Journal Constitution" article certainly indicates that it could be pervasive and nationwide. The only thing we know for sure is they did this study in Atlanta. They saw indications of patterns of cheating. Our governor fortunately put together an investigative team and found out it was rampant in the Atlanta Public School system. The superintendent was replaced. A number of teachers were replaced. And the situation was cleaned up.
So they then applied the same algorithm to school systems across the country and found a number of them had very similar anomalies in the test scores that just did not seem possible. So I think those systems should do what Georgia did. They should call a panel, investigate them. If they found out they're cheating, they should stop the cheating and correct the problem.
BANFIELD: So if the extrapolation is correct and this is a nationwide problem and it is a nationwide crisis, a lot of the opponents are saying that it's because of the No Child Left Behind program. And I know you were one of the authors of that program and spent 10 years trying to implement it. What do you think about that?
ISAKSON: Well, I believe that testing is absolutely critical to being able to benchmark the progress of any student. People who are blaming cheating on testing are overlooking the fact that cheat is a failure of morality, it's not a failure of a test. You've got to benchmark your progress on your students or you'll never know which direction you're going in.
The problem is, either individually or collectively or through some pattern of practice, teachers began changing scores to make scores look better than they were. And that's just not right. But that's a moral failing. It's not a failure of the system or the law.
BANFIELD: But do you still think that No Child Left Behind was a good idea?
ISAKSON: Yes, ma'am. In fact, the problem with No Child Left Behind is the last four years we failed to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is No Child Left Behind. We knew when we wrote it 10 years ago that because of the adequate yearly progress requirements and the needs improvements requirements, the better systems did, the harder it would be for them to continue to meet -- reach the benchmark. So we knew it had a life span. Unfortunately, without being reauthorized, that's caused part of this crisis.
BANFIELD: Well, far be it for me to know your legislation backwards and forwards, but what the opponents say is that when you set a benchmark, teachers panic. And if they don't meet that benchmark, they lose money and everybody loses. So there is huge incentive to cheat. But if you take that incentive away, there's more incentive to teach. Is that so wrong of an argument?
ISAKSON: Well, I have great respect for America's teachers. Unfortunately, there obviously were some in Atlanta who cheated and tried to cheat the system. I hope it's not as pervasive as "The Journal Constitution" study saw, but I do not think teachers rank and file are bad people or have a failure of morality. I think we'll find out there was some organization to this, but it wasn't pervasive in terms of every teacher.
BANFIELD: What if they're cheating out of altruistic goals, though, senator? What if the cheating was not so that they could fluff their feathers, but instead so that they could keep teaching these kids, fearing they'd lose the money they needed to do their jobs?
ISAKSON: Well, once again, I think the answer states, it's a moral failing of the character of that teacher. That's the problem.
BANFIELD: All right. Well, I do appreciate you coming on to talk with us today. And I assume there's going to be a whole lot more of this certainly if the rest of the states decide to do these kinds of investigations that "The Atlanta Journal Constitution" did.
ISAKSON: There should be. It should be investigated by each state thoroughly.
BANFIELD: Amen. All right, well, thank you, Senator Johnny Isakson. Appreciate your time.
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