School & District Management

State Investigation Reveals Widespread Cheating in Atlanta Schools

By Christina A. Samuels — July 05, 2011 4 min read
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Beverly L. Hall, the former superintendent of Atlanta schools, knew about cheating allegations on state standardized tests and either ignored or tried to hide them, the Associated Press reported after obtaining a copy of an 800-page state investigation report.

Earlier today, Gov. Nathan Deal’s office released a synopsis of the report’s findings, which noted that investigators found evidence of cheating at close to 80 percent of the Atlanta schools where they examined the 2009 administration of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, or CRCT. Teachers and principals at more than four dozen schools are accused of helping students, or changing the answers once students handed in their test sheet.

The synopsis left open the question of how much Hall might have known about the cheating. According to the AP’s examination of the entire report, several educators reported cheating in their schools, and Hall and other administrators ignored those reports and sometimes retaliated against the whistleblowers.

The result was inflated test scores that led to thousands of children being denied the remedial education they were entitled to, state officials said Tuesday. More than 80 educators have so far confessed to misconduct, and investigators say the cheating dated back years, to at least 2001.

Hall’s attorney, Richard Deane, told the Associated Press in a written statement that “Dr. Hall steadfastly denies that she, her staff, or the vast majority of APS teaching and administrative professionals knew or should have known of any allegedly widespread cheating,” He also wrote that Hall “further denies any other allegations of knowing and deliberate wrongdoing on her part or on the part of her senior staff, whether during the course of the investigation or before the investigation began.”

The 48,000-student Atlanta district has been under a cloud for the past two years, ever since an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found improbably high results on the CRCT, which Georgia uses to determine whether schools have made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Based in part on what appeared to be Atlanta’s strong results on standardized tests, Hall was hailed as a model for urban superintendents. In 2009, she was honored by the American Association of School Administrators as superintendent of the year. But amid the investigations and instability on the school board, she announced that she would not be seeking a contract extension, and left the district this June after 12 years.

Under Hall, the district investigated the allegations and said there was no evidence of cheating. Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue called the district’s own investigation “woefully inadequate” and appointed an independent investigator. About a month before she stepped down, Hall acknowledged in a videotaped farewell that the results of the report would be “alarming.”

The report synopsis states that 178 teachers and principals in the Atlanta Public Schools System were involved in cheating. Of the 178, 82 confessed to this misconduct.

Six principals refused to answer questions under the ground that they might incriminate themselves, which, “under civil law is an implied admission of wrongdoing,” the report states. “These principals, and 32 more, either were involved with, or should have known that, there was test cheating in their schools.” In all, the investigators reported finding cheating in 44 of the 56 schools they examined.

In addition, the report synopsis states:

Cheating occurred as early as 2001. There were warnings of cheating on CRCT as early as December 2005/January 2006. The warnings were significant and clear and were ignored. Cheating was caused by a number of factors, but primarily by the pressure to meet targets in the data-driven environment. There was a major failure of leadership throughout APS with regard to the ethical administration of the 2009 CRCT. A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation existed in APS, which created a conspiracy of silence and deniability with respect to standardized test misconduct. In addition to the 2009 CRCT cheating, there were several other instances of misconduct, including several open record act violations; instances of false statements; and instances of document destruction.

At a press conference earlier today, Gov. Nathan Deal said “there will be consequences” for the teachers and principals who falsified test results, according to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

During a somber briefing this afternoon, School Board Chairman Brenda J. Muhammad and interim Superintendent Erroll B. Davis Jr. told reporters today that the teachers and principals who falsified test sheets will face sanctions from the district.

“These people are not going to be put in front of children again,” Mr. Davis said. “I don’t know what makes people cheat, but it is not pressure to perform that does that.” The district expects that its employees will operate within ethical boundaries, he said.

Muhammad stressed that only a fraction of the district’s employees have been accused of participating in attempts to boost test scores.

“I want to speak to the teachers who have done the right thing. We want to thank you. It’s just a few out of 6,000 or more who have committed this grave, grave sin,” Muhammad said. She also deflected questions about former Superintendent Hall. “We want to address the present and make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said.

Photo: Gov. Nathan Deal concludes a news conference on the alleged cheating on test scores in the Atlanta Public Schools. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)

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