"You are only cheating yourselves." It's the time-honored response to students who are caught stealing answers in class.
But what do you say to adults accused of cheating for students? Moreover, what do you say to educators who allegedly participated in a wholesale campaign to falsify tests, often to their own financial benefit? Let's start with "You're fired" — with an option on "Go to jail."
But some educators and political pundits are reacting to the massive cheating scandal in Atlanta public schools with relativism and moral ambiguity. They're blaming it on the nation's preoccupation with standardized tests.
These "cheating scandals have been a result of test-obsessed school reform," wrote education reporter Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post.
"We don't condone cheating, but when you have high-stakes testing .<TH>.<TH>. (it is) unfair to children, unfair to educators," Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers told MSNBC.
Some are also alleging racism. In a blog post, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin called the public outrage over the indictments "a public hanging."
"Look at the pictures of those 35," said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, a spokesman for the group Concerned Black Clergy, in condemning the high initial bail amounts of those accused. "Show me a white face."
Granted, this is an issue that is bigger than Atlanta. According to a recent study by the independent monitoring group FairTest, cheating related to standardized tests has been documented in 37 states and the District of Columbia. We have our own problems with how No Child Left Behind is structured and how it ties funding to test scores. But none of that should distract from the historic deception that's alleged to have occurred in Atlanta where educators were ushered into windowless rooms and left to erase student test answers and write in the correct ones.
At one school, officials reportedly held pizza parties as teachers held "erasure parties." It's small wonder that in a single year, scores at that school jumped 45 percent.
Overall, more than 150 teachers and administrators from 44 public schools across Atlanta were said to have taken part in this web of deceit, according to a state report. But when the 65 indictments were handed down on Friday, it targeted just 35 education professionals, including Beverly L. Hall, the highly touted former superintendent of Atlanta public schools. The complaint alleges that they all conspired to cheat, conceal cheating and/or retaliate against whistleblowers with the intent to bolster student test scores. The result of that is that the schools received more accolades and more federal funding. The educators received more money as well.
Hall, who was named national superintendent of the year in 2009, for example, received hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses that were tied to improved test scores, scores that are now suspect.
In announcing the indictment on Friday, the Fulton County district attorney offered the story of a third-grade student who received the worst score in her reading class in 2006. Yet, when she took an assessment test, she passed easily. The girl is now in ninth grade, and, according to her parents, she reads at a fifth-grade level.
No amount of erasers or pizza will change the fact that she was robbed.