A Cheating Scandal Rocked Atlanta's Schools. Ten Years Later, Efforts to Help Affected Students Fall Short
Until recently, near the entrance to Dobbs Elementary School hung a white banner, an artifact from a time the Atlanta Public Schools hopes to bury in the past.
The sign heralded test scores from 2007-08, a year when some of Dobbs’ educators were found to have cheated on state tests, as part of a criminal conspiracy that sunk the careers of dozens of educators and altered the education of tens of thousands of students.
The banner is emblematic of a problem still plaguing the school system: in the wake of the largest K-12 school cheating scandal in U.S. history, the district and community have struggled to move on. The scandal has cast a long shadow, with the cheating allegations looming over this city’s schools for the better part of a decade.
Of the 11 former educators convicted on state racketeering charges, many are still appealing their convictions, hoping to clear their records, if not their names.
A former Dobbs principal, Dana Evans, is among them. Even as legal fees have drained her retirement accounts and she struggles to find work, she insists she is innocent.
“I’m trying to figure out a meaningful way to take all of this and turn it into something good,” Evans said in an interview with Education Week. “And I haven’t been able to do that yet.”
Evans is not the only one.
Two programs designed to help the students affected by the cheating scandal have also fallen flat.
The Atlanta Promise Academy, an effort hatched to find dropouts who were harmed by the cheating and offer them GED classes or job training has failed to get off the ground. In the two years since Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announced the plan, he has not been able to secure private or public financing to get it rolling.
And the district’s main attempt to repair the damage to students impacted by the cheating—a $7.5 million program for those who are still in school—hasn’t fared much better. In a new report from Georgia State University, researchers found that tutoring and other support services may have come too little, too late.
Roughly 1,800 students are now enrolled in that program, known as Target 2021, the year in which the last of the affected students are expected to graduate.
The program—which didn’t launch until six years after most of the cheating occurred—has thus far had little or no effect on grades, attendance, or the number of classes the students passed, the report by economist Tim Sass found. And participation in Target 2021 has had no statistically significant impact on the chances of the students graduating from high school, the report found.
Even before the latest findings, the results left some parents with the sense that, once again, Atlanta is cheating its children.
“I can’t go back and get those years back for any of those children, including my children,” said Shawnna Hayes-Tavares, a district parent and critic who sits on the program’s advisory council. She had two children—one who is now a district graduate and another in his senior year—eligible for the program.
“We didn’t even start the process until almost six years later,” Hayes-Tavares said. “How many students did we lose in the process?”
‘Not a Victimless Crime’
The Atlanta cheating scandal captured national attention for the breadth and pervasiveness of the corruption within the 50,000-student school system and for the aggressive criminal prosecution of educators that followed.
Because bonuses and raises were awarded to some educators based on the fraudulent test scores, prosecutors charged the defendants with violating the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, by engaging in a massive criminal conspiracy. The criminal statute is typically used to prosecute those with ties to organized crime.
The investigation, ordered by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, led to the indictments of 35 Atlanta educators who, prosecutors said, changed students’ answers on tests because of pressure to boost test scores. Many of the educators reached plea agreements in exchange for their cooperation with prosecutors. The district’s superintendent at the time, Beverly Hall, was also indicted.
Educators in Georgia and across the nation questioned whether prosecutors were too punitive.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first uncovered evidence of cheating while reporting on abnormal test-score increases.
While confirming the Atlanta cheating, state investigators found similar misconduct in at least one other Georgia school district. But authorities in that community decided not to seek criminal charges.
Despite that, Jerry W. Baxter, the judge who presided over the Atlanta cheating case, and Howard, the Fulton County prosecutor, still scoff at the notion they were too hard on the educators.
“It was a case about stealing an opportunity for education,” said Howard, whose three children graduated from Atlanta’s public schools.
To this day, Evans denies those claims.
“We were all just lumped into this big mess of cheating and scandal,” Evans said. “Nobody looked at me as an individual.”
Judge Baxter says that he did. The semi-retired judge calls Evans a “tragic figure.” Before taking the helm at Dobbs, she served as the counselor at his children’s Atlanta middle school. The judge credits Evans with helping his son, who is now a teacher at an Atlanta-area private school, make it through middle school.
“[Evans] was well respected and that was really hard for me to see her in that situation,” Baxter said in an interview with Education Week.
She was among those convicted of falsifying test results to collect bonuses or keep their jobs.
Evans maintains that she never felt undue pressure from her bosses to boost scores at Dobbs, a high-poverty school which had been plagued by high-absenteeism and perennially low test scores.
“The job was big and so it was hard. So, there was always pressure,” Evans said. “I felt pressure to achieve for my kids. Because I saw education as a great equalizer.”
She maintains that teachers at Dobbs cheated without her knowledge, colluding to keep her in the dark about unethical practices that began well before her arrival.
“They probably cheated because they wanted people to believe their kids could do it,” Evans said. “The crux of it is that they didn’t believe that the kids could do it without any kind of help.”
Prosecutors never directly tied Evans to the cheating at Dobbs, but argued that, as the school’s leader, she failed to do enough to stop something she knew was happening.
Baxter sentenced her to five years in prison; one year behind bars and four years of probation. All of the sentences in the case, including Evans’, also included hundreds of community-service hours to be spent tutoring inmates and school-aged children.
“It needed to be done,” Baxter said. “It was totally wrong and robbed a lot of kids of resources that they should’ve had. It’s not a victimless crime.”
‘They Barely Remember’
The adults around Sheldon Garmon III see a victor, not a victim.
A senior at The B.E.S.T. Academy, Garmon ranks third in his class and is racking up college credit as a dual-enrollment student at Atlanta Technical College.
Nykira Ross, a senior at the neighboring Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, uses Target 2021 for SAT prep and serves as a mentor to younger students enrolled in the program.
For the district, Garmon and Ross are poster children for the Target 2021 initiative: leaders on campus and in the classroom.
But the two also represent what some critics consider a major flaw in the program: providing support to high-achieving students while neglecting peers who struggled and left the district or dropped out of school altogether.
In the Atlanta case, the state investigation identified erasure patterns on student answer sheets that suggested the educators changed wrong answers to right ones after the test. But the erasures were often haphazard. In some cases, students with learning disabilities were identified as proficient in reading and math. In other instances, high-achieving or gifted students had their exams altered as well, with their test scores elevated from exceptional to perfect. Students who erased and replaced their own answers during the test are also eligible for Target 2021.
“We have a wide range of students,” said Tiffany Franklin, the former manager of the Target 2021 program and now an assistant principal in the district. “They were identified as being potentially impacted and so the services are there for them.”
Celeste Boykin, one of the 18 student-support coaches scattered throughout the district, works out of The B.E.S.T. Academy. For the students at the all-boys school, she’s a mother and mentor, counselor and coach.
Boykin tracks the movements and grades of dozens of students, checking in with almost all of them daily. Her students soak up the extra attention she provides, the tutoring sessions she arranges, and the advice on how to get into college and how to pay for it. The reason the students receive the extra support services rarely comes up, Boykin said.
“It’s a non-issue,” Boykin said. “These kids were in 2nd, 3rd grade. They barely remember.”
The students confirm that. They remember more about the cartoons they watched and games they played as 7- and 8-year-olds than any high-stakes tests they took.
Brandon Alston, a junior at the B.E.S.T. Academy, who is a Target 2021 student, says the tutoring he gets has helped him keep his grades up in algebra and physics. Alston never contemplated whether a cheating scandal that began almost a decade ago could have impacted his education. “I never thought about the bad things that could happen,” Alston said.
But Shawnna Hayes-Tavares has, for years, considered the potential predicaments.
A 2016 study by Sass, the Georgia State University economist, and his colleagues, tracked the consequences of cheating on students in Atlanta and another undisclosed district.
In both districts, the researchers found that schools with higher percentages of black students or students in poverty were significantly more likely to show signs of cheating, such as excessive erasures from wrong to right answers on multiple-choice questions.
Sass and his colleagues found, on average, those students’ math and reading scores lagged their peers by a half-year or more. The team also found preliminary evidence that students whose scores were manipulated by 10 or more changed answers became less likely to graduate from high school than those whose test scores were not altered at all.
“If you’re thinking you’re helping a little 3rd or 5th grader ... by pushing them along, all you’re doing is setting them up for failure later,” Hayes-Tavares said.
Howard, the county prosecutor, argues that, post-scandal, the district is “in a better place because at least they are saying we recognize we’ve got this tough burden and we’re going to try to work incrementally to get it done.”
However, all the available evidence may not indicate that.
Since the scandal broke, the district has undergone significant changes. A new school board is in place and Superintendent Meria Carstarphen was hired in 2014, pledging to rebuild the integrity of the district.
The Target 2021 initiative, which began during her tenure, was part of the plan to restore confidence, but things have not gone as planned.
Besides the minimal influence on student performance, Tim Sass, the Georgia State researcher, found significant problems with the structure of the program, including that almost all the students who may have been affected by test score manipulation in 2009 are in high school. Trying to shore up students’ academic weaknesses six years later is a long shot even for the “best designed and implemented interventions,” Sass wrote.
Sass also determined that many of the program’s goals could not be readily measured, if at all.
Carstarphen declined requests to be interviewed for this story.
Prosecutors pegged one of Carstarphen’s predecessors, former Superintendent Beverly Hall, as the conspiracy’s ringleader, though she vehemently denied that charge. Hall, who retired after the scandal broke in 2011, offered cash bonuses to educators at schools that met achievement targets. Her failing health kept her from ever standing trial. She died in March 2015.
Judge Baxter described the pressure to boost test scores as “unrelenting.” In some schools, teachers who could not keep up the pace were explicitly told that “somebody’s waiting for your position.”
But now, bonuses for principals and regional superintendents that were driven by test scores—the linchpin in the criminal trial—are a thing of the past.
Test scores and graduation rates are inching up incrementally but the gap between the performance of poor black students—like the ones impacted by the cheating scandal—and their more affluent peers remains wide.
"Through [the Target 2021 program], we have worked hard to identify and assess student performance, engage parents and families, and provide the individualized academic supports our students need to ensure they are on track for graduation," said district spokesman Ian Smith.
To combat any future attempts to cheat, the district has moved most, if not all, testing online, said William Caritj, the district’s chief accountability and information officer.
Atlanta also provides constant training and reminders for staff, schooling teachers on what they can say and do during testing, and how to properly limit access to exams before testing begins. Testing materials are tucked away in camera-monitored “safe rooms.”
At Dobbs Elementary, and other schools, the materials are secured and only one person has access.
When tests scores shoot up, district staff review reports. For example, scores increasing in a couple of 4th-grade classes, but nowhere else in a school, could trigger an audit, Caritj said.
“We’re very confident that the gains are the results of the work that’s been done in the school(s), not something that wasn’t supposed to happen,” Caritj said. “The whole point of accountability is not to be punitive, it’s not to be a gotcha system. It’s so that the schools become stronger and the teachers become better.”
It’s unclear whether that has happened at Dobbs Elementary. Under the new regime, schoolwide test scores have plummeted.
The old banner celebrated the school meeting 80 to 89 percent of the district’s achievement targets during the 2007-08 school year.
Eight years later, only 12 percent of Dobbs’ students passed all the test states, which have changed. That’s 20 percentage points lower than the state average.
After the sentencing, Evans spent 14 days in jail and endured many sleepless nights since, knowing that she faces more time behinds bars if she loses her appeal.
“I’m not who they said I was in court,” Evans said. “I’m a person who believes in the ability of children, all children. That they can learn and that it’s our responsibility to make sure that do everything in our power to make that happen.”
That was the root of the problem, Judge Baxter said.
“A lot of these people that were caught up in these events were noble people, and they were decent people.” said Baxter, himself the son of two educators.
“I had empathy for those people. If I was in that situation, in their particular situation, I might have done the same thing.”
Vol. 37, Issue 17, Pages 1, 12-13Published in Print: December 19, 2017, as Cheating Scandal in Atlanta Casts Long Shadow