Atlanta Cheating: The Former Superintendent Responds

By Christina A. Samuels — July 11, 2011 2 min read
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Former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly L. Hall wrote an editorial for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, responding to an 800-page bombshell of a report from state investigators that says cheating on state tests was widespread in the district, and that she had to, or should have, known about it. An excerpt:

To the extent that I failed to take measures that would have prevented what the investigators have disclosed, I am accountable, as head of the school system, for failing to act accordingly. I sincerely apologize to the people of Atlanta and their children for any shortcomings. If I did anything that gave teachers the impression I was unapproachable and unresponsive to their concerns, I also apologize for that. Where people consciously chose to cheat, however, the moral responsibility must lie with them. I do not apologize for the reforms my staff and I implemented. The public has a right to hold educators and administrators accountable if they fail to teach children what they need to learn.

Hall’s letter also mentions Atlanta’s improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, also known as the “nation’s report card.” The NAEP is usually used to report on the progress of the nation as a whole. However, Atlanta was one of a handful of urban districts that took the NAEP as a way to explore if it is possible to use those scores to report on district-level achievement.

Atlanta students have shown growth in these tests. For example, 35 percent of district 4th-graders scored at or above basic in reading in 2002. By 2009, that percentage had increased to 50 percent. For 8th-graders over the same time period, reading scores rose from 42 percent scoring at or above basic, to 60 percent in that range.

Of course, the cheating on the state tests raises questions about whether there was cheating on the NAEP. Sean P. “Jack” Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, explained to me in an interview last week that it is very unlikely that could have happened.

First, compared to the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, or CRCT, the NAEP is low-stakes. It’s not used to determine adequate yearly progress, for example.

Then, the test is administered by federal officials, not school personnel. The students who take the tests are a sample of all the 4th-graders and 8th-graders in a school, and even the teachers and principals don’t know ahead of time who is going to be picked to take the test.

The questions in each test booklet are different, so that even if two students taking the reading portion of the test are sitting next to each other, they can’t copy off each other. After the text is over, the booklets and answer sheets are sealed and the NAEP officials take them away. The whole process starts in the morning and is over around noon, Buckley said.

It is possible for a school to shade the results by providing only a sample of their highest-performing students for the NAEP managers to pick from. But that doesn’t appear to be the case in Atlanta, Buckley said; the samples of students were randomly drawn from the school population of 4th and 8th graders as a whole. NCES is confident that the gains the district showed on the NAEP are legitimate, he said.

Such assurances, though, will likely be lost in the debate over just how Atlanta educators could have cheated on the state tests, and for so long. And the ripple effects are reaching out beyond the district: Kathy Augustine, a former deputy superintendent in Atlanta, was slated to start this week as the new superintendent in the 9,000-student DeSoto Independent School District in Texas.

However, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is reporting that the Texas school district is reconsidering its decision to hire her. Augustine was the deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Atlanta, and state investigators have said that she knew, or should have known, that cheating was taking place.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.