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In an interesting twist of fate, Mississippi passed legislation Thursday granting sweeping new powers to investigate and punish cheating by public school educators, just one day after an Atlanta jury convicted 11 public school officials for their role in the nation’s biggest cheating scandal in history.

Their convictions came six years after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first published reports raising questions about disproportionately high test scores in some of the city’s roughest schools.

A subsequent state investigation found evidence of widespread cheating in nearly four dozen schools by some 200 educators who had altered students’ test sheets to inflate their scores. Of the nearly three dozen people ultimately charged, 21 pleaded guilty and 12 went to trial. Eleven of those 12 now face at least two decades behind bars for racketeering. They’ll be sentenced next week.

The impetus for Mississippi’s legislation shares a similar story.

The Clarion-Ledger published reports last April raising questions about high test scores achieved by some Clarksdale Public School District students whose subsequent test results showed they could barely read or do math.

A state investigation launched immediately after the newspaper’s first report produced preliminary evidence that Clarksdale educators engaged in or were aware of testing violations. The state then launched the second phase of its investigation, which was scheduled for completion earlier this year but is still ongoing.

Because it’s the first major cheating investigation of its kind in Mississippi, education officials here have had to learn as they go. And they quickly learned that they lacked some key powers needed to conduct such a probe. So they lobbied for a bill that, when Gov. Phil Bryant signs it, immediately becomes law. It grants the state Board of Education power to “subpoena persons and to issue a subpoena to compel production of books, papers, records and other documents.”

It also allows them to seek a court order enforcing the subpoena in cases where it’s otherwise ignored.

The bill also requires principals to certify under oath that each statewide test was administered properly and, in the event they suspect otherwise, must report all suspicions to the state Department of Education.

Anyone caught knowingly submitting false certifications faces felony charges carrying up to three years’ incarceration and up to $15,000 in fines, according to the new law. Offenders also risk their educator licenses.

Finally, the legislation places investigation materials under seal to prevent public disclosure during an ongoing probe. And it requires a school district to reimburse the state for investigative costs should it find evidence of testing violations.

The new law should expedite future cheating investigations, which state Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said she plans to pursue in districts the agency already has identified but declined to name.

Expedition sounds good, especially as the Clarksdale probe nears its one-year mark with the district, its students and staff in limbo as to what the future holds.

http://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/2015/04/04/bill-expedite-cheating-investigations/25301903/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Contact Emily Le Coz at (601) 961-7249 or elecoz@jackson.gannett.com. Follow @emily_lecoz on Twitter.

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