Assessment

Atlanta Cheating Scandal’s Tentacles Said to Reach Far

By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 16, 2013 7 min read
Former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall, center, heads towards the Fulton County Jail to turn herself in on Tuesday in Atlanta. Hall is among the 35 Atlanta school system educators named in a 65-count indictment last week that alleges a broad conspiracy to cheat, conceal cheating, or retaliate against whistleblowers in an effort to bolster student test scores and, as a result, receive bonuses for improved student performance.

The criminal indictments late last month 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 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 in a 65-count indictment by a Fulton County, Ga., grand jury that 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 whistle-blowers 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 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 in to 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 be the highest-profile public school administrator to be held criminally accountable for cheating. Last year, former El Paso, Texas, schools chief Lorenzo García pleaded guilty to multiple counts of fraud and was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in manipulating 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.”

A National Profile

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 specter of cheating on state exams in Atlanta 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 investigation of testing throughout the school system, triggering a state probe that uncovered how widespread the cheating had been, with nearly 180 educators involved dating back to 2001.

State investigators 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 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 among the urban districts that participate in the Trial Urban District Assessment, 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.

Results From NAEP

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 the NAEP is highly unlikely, given its low-stakes nature and the tight administrative controls maintained 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, NAEP officials conducted their own investigation into whether any wrongdoing occurred on the 2009 NAEP administration 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 the 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 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 overall. He believes that Atlanta’s progress on the 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.”

Wider Impacts

Winston Brooks, the superintendent of the 90,000-student Albuquerque, N.M., district 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 Atlanta students.

“I think she narrowed the achievement gap and raised the proficiency levels, if not evidenced by the state tests, but as evidenced by the NAEP,” he said.

Mr. Brooks said school leaders will need to be extra vigilant about test security and integrity.

“Superintendents and other leaders have to make clear that under no circumstances will cheating be tolerated,” he said. “I think most of us have taken it for granted that people won’t cheat.”

For many of the educators who were caught up in the cheating scandal, either as participants or whistle-blowers, the career damage 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, she said.

“There was an atmosphere of fear in some of the schools,” 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.”

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” in 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 schools.

“Beverly Hall was one of the most highly respected superintendents in the country,” 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.”

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 as Atlanta Cheating Scandal’s Tentacles Said to Reach Far

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