The criminal indictments last week of retired Atlanta schools Superintendent Beverly L. Hall and 34 other educators for their alleged roles in a far-reaching cheating scandal could have widespread fallout and potentially undermine efforts in other school districts to improve the academic achievement of poor and minority students, according to education leaders.
Ms. Hall, a one-time national superintendent of the year, and her former school system colleagues were named inthat alleges the educators engaged in a broad conspiracy to make student performance in the Atlanta district look better than it actually was. The indictment, which includes racketeering charges, alleges that Ms. Hall and the others cheated on state exams, hid the cheating, and retaliated against whistleblowers who tried to expose it. Many of those who were charged, including Ms. Hall, received hundreds of thousands of dollars in performance bonuses that were based on the fraudulent scores.
“The wider repercussions of the Atlanta case are very troubling,” said Daniel A. Domenech, a former superintendent of the Fairfax County, Va., schools and the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Alexandria, Va. “The problem is that any school systems that have accomplished great turnarounds of schools are going to become suspect, and people will assume that there must have been some cheating involved.”
Ms. Hall—who retired in 2011 after 12 years at the helm in of the 48,000-student Atlanta district and was admired widely for the steady academic progress the system appeared to have made on her watch—turned herself into the Fulton County jail on April 2 and was released a few hours later on a $200,000 bond. The charges against her stem from a state law typically used to prosecute organized crime and are very unusual for educators accused of wrongdoing.
If convicted, she would likely become the highest-profile public school administrator to be held criminally accountable for cheating. Late last year, former El Paso, Texas, schools chief Lorenzo García pleaded guilty to multiple counts of fraud andfor his role in manipulating students’ scores on state tests.
Ms. Hall’s lawyer, David J. Bailey, said the former Atlanta superintendent is innocent of all the charges.
“We intend to defend her vigorously and look forward to clearing her name,” Mr. Bailey said in an interview. “Certainly, this is an unprecedented situation.”
In 2009, the AASA named Ms. Hall the national superintendent of the year. Mr. Domenech said the organization’s governing board would likely take the unprecedented step of revoking the award if she is convicted.
“The award was given on the merits of the work that she did,” he said. “A conviction would indicate that there was no merit.” Ms. Hall also received the top urban education leadership award in 2006 from the Council of the Great City Schools, and the Atlanta district was one of five finalists for the Broad Prize in Urban Education in 2002, the inaugural year for that award.
The specter of cheating on state exams in Atlanta first became public in late 2008, when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published stories on suspicious one-year increases in standardized-test scores in a few elementary schools. The newspaper followed up with an extensive investigation of testing throughout the school system, which triggered a state probe that uncovered how widespread the cheating had been, with nearly 180 educators involved and dating back to 2001.
Investigators for the state found that teachers, principals, and testing coordinators had either provided answers to students during the tests or corrected wrong answers after the tests were turned in. Anyone who tried to report the wrongdoing encountered retaliation, the state investigators said.
The Atlanta scandal, along with allegations of cheating on standardized tests in other school systems, such as the District of Columbia and Philadelphia, have helped fuel a backlash against standardized testing and the high-stakes sanctions and rewards attached to the results.
Some officials, including former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who ordered the state investigation, have said the cheating on state tests also casts doubt on Atlanta’s notable growth in achievement on the rigorous, federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Over the past decade, Atlanta posted some of the strongest gains of any of the urban districts that participate in the, or TUDA, a specially collected set of test results on district-level achievement from NAEP. Ms. Hall pushed Atlanta to be one of the original urban districts to participate in TUDA, which publicly reports the performance of the city’s students on the national assessment.
Ms. Hall, who has consistently denied that she knew about the cheating on state tests, has held up the district’s NAEP results as evidence that Atlanta’s students did make real progress.
In 2002, 35 percent of Atlanta’s 4th graders scored at or above the “basic” level on the NAEP reading exam. By 2009, that percentage had grown to 50 percent. For 8th graders over the same period, reading scores rose from 42 percent scoring at or above basic to 60 percent.
Federal officials have said that cheating on NAEP is highly unlikely for two chief reasons: The test is low stakes and there are tight administrative controls over the assessment. No local school personnel ever see or handle the NAEP tests. But after the state investigation in Atlanta revealed cheating on state tests,into whether any wrongdoing occurred on the 2009 administration of the national assessment in Atlanta.
They turned up no evidence of cheating, said Sean P. “Jack” Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal agency that administers NAEP.
Federal statisticians also wanted to make sure the district hadn’t tried to manipulate the samples of students to be tested. They looked closely at the 79 Atlanta schools that took part in the test administration in 2009 and found nine schools where the population and demographics of students reported to the U.S. Department of Education didn’t quite match up with the snapshot of students who were included in the testing sample. When NAEP officials probed for answers, there were plausible explanations, Mr. Buckley said. In one case, an alternative middle school had been relocated to a new neighborhood and probably would have experienced a change in its student body as a result.
Mr. Buckley also said that Atlanta’s rates of excluding special education students or English-language learners from the national tests were low compared with those of other districts and the state of Georgia overall. He believes that Atlanta’s progress on NAEP is real.
“The situation in Atlanta is complicated,” he said. “There were obviously rampant violations of testing integrity going on there, but there were also schools there that were legitimately improving.”
Winston Brooks, the superintendent of the 90,000-student school district in Albuquerque, N.M., and a longtime colleague of Ms. Hall’s in the Council of the Great City Schools, said that regardless of the outcome in the criminal case, Ms. Hall deserves credit for improving achievement for many students in Atlanta.
“I think she narrowed the achievement gap and raised the proficiency levels, if not evidenced by the state tests, but as evidenced by NAEP,” he said.
Mr. Brooks said that all urban school leaders will need to be extra vigilant about testing security and integrity.
“Every irregularity and complaint needs to be taken seriously,” he said. “And superintendents and other leaders have to make clear that under no circumstances will cheating be tolerated. I think most of us have taken it for granted that people won’t cheat.”
Impact on Teachers
For many of the educators who were caught up in the cheating scandal, either as participants or whistleblowers, the damage to their careers has been deep, said Verdaillia Turner, the president of the Atlanta Federation of Teachers. While a handful of teachers have been indicted, dozens more were fired, left the district, or lost their state licenses, Ms. Turner said.
“There was an atmosphere of fear in some of the schools, and teachers were afraid,” said Ms. Turner. “Our organization spent a lot of time trying to get teachers transferred out of schools where they felt the pressure to do things they knew were wrong.”
For many of Ms. Hall’s former colleagues outside Atlanta, the news of her indictment is hard to swallow. According to the indictment, Ms. Hall “placed unreasonable emphasis on achieving [student performance] targets; protected and awarded those who achieved targets through cheating; terminated principals who failed to achieve targets; and ignored suspicious [state standardized-test] score gains at schools” with the district.
Ronald L. Carlson, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Georgia, in Athens, said the racketeering and conspiracy charges against Ms. Hall and the former district employees are unlike what is typically seen in criminal prosecutions of educators.
“We’re used to seeing school people charged with theft of money or with abusing students,” Mr. Carlson said. “The success or failure of this prosecution will really turn on the quality of testimony from the teachers and administrators who are cooperating with the state.”
Ms. Hall also has been charged with lying under oath to state investigators that she had no knowledge of specific complaints about cheating in some of the city’s schools.
“Beverly Hall was one of the most highly respected superintendents in the country, especially among her colleagues,” said Mr. Brooks, echoing the widespread sentiment about Ms. Hall among her urban education peers. “Most of us looked at her as a role model, both for her passion for kids, especially minority children, and for her intelligence.”
“I knew her for years, and none of this computes,” said Mr. Domenech, who came to know Ms. Hall when both of them served as school administrators in the New York City region. “It’s just inconceivable that she could have been involved in something like this or possibly leading the parade.”
Ms. Turner, the teachers’ union president, said Ms. Hall was widely viewed as an “aloof” leader who, from the outset of her tenure in Atlanta, relied heavily on members of her administrative team to manage much of the day-to-day operations of the district. Ms. Hall focused much of her attention, Ms. Turner said, on “raising money for the district” and nurturing relations with the city’s corporate leaders, who were very supportive of her agenda.
“She delegated a lot to the people under her, and always operated that way,” said Ms. Turner. “It would not surprise me if she did not know anything” about the alleged wrongdoing.
Staff Writer Jaclyn Zubrzycki and Research Librarian Holly Peele contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2013 edition of Education Week