Cheating Investigation Focuses On Atlanta Schools
|Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue listens to Kathleen Mathers, executive director of the Governor's Office of Student Achievement, point out suspicious data regarding state standardized test scores to the state school board in August - .John Amis/AP|
October 12, 2010 - In Georgia, state standardized tests that students took last year showed an unusually high number of eraser marks. As many as 250,000 incorrect answers were changed to make them correct. Parents and state officials are still trying to figure out what happened.
The Georgia school district with the most problems was Atlanta Public Schools. School officials appointed what they called a "blue ribbon commission" to investigate, and it found no coordinated effort to manipulate the scores — a conclusion accepted by Superintendent Beverly Hall.
But Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue called that investigation "woefully inadequate," and he has launched his own inquiry, which he says will be "both thorough and swift."
More than 50 schools in Atlanta were flagged for cheating, but the district chose to investigate only a dozen. And many critics, including the governor, complained that officials did not question enough teachers and administrators to find out who was responsible.
What has happened here has stunted the growing and learning process for thousands of children.
- Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue
"This is about seeking out a small group of people who have failed to hold up the high ideals that most Georgia teachers live by. And what has happened here has stunted the growing and learning process for thousands of children," Perdue says.
A Culture Of Cheating?
The tests are given to children in grades 1-8. The results determine whether schools meet federal benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Good scores mean high praise and cash bonuses. Failure to meet standards could mean losing hundreds of thousands in federal dollars, and could cost teachers and administrators their jobs.
Shawnna Hayes-Tavares with her four children, two of whom attend Atlanta public schools that were flagged for cheating on Georgia's state standardized tests last year. Her children told her that it was common at their schools for teachers to give students test answers.
A mother of four, Shawnna Hayes-Tavares has two children who go to schools that were called into question.
"What is happening? Are our teachers cheating? Is the administration cheating? Have we created a cheating culture? You know, it's so many things to think about as a parent," Hayes-Tavares says.
According to Hayes-Tavares, her own children knew there was a problem, telling her that it was common for teachers to give students test answers.
Most of the problem schools are located in poor Atlanta neighborhoods and qualify for extra federal funding, including free or reduced student lunches.
A Painful Chapter
The district says there was no evidence of a coordinated effort to tamper with the tests, but many here don't buy the claim.
Where there's smoke, there's fire. And there's some fire here.
- Georgia State Sen. Vincent Fort
"Where there's smoke, there's fire. And there's some fire here," says Georgia state Sen. Vincent Fort, who says the commission originally set up by the district was designed to do damage control — to protect the image of the city, the schools and the superintendent.
"When you look at the governance issues, when you look at all of these issues, it makes you wonder whether or not there's a systemic lack of leadership and governance at the Atlanta public schools," Fort says.
Superintendent Hall, who was widely praised for bringing up Atlanta test scores and was named National Superintendent of the Year in 2009, declined to be interviewed for this story.
At her "State of the Schools" address in August, Hall said she was disappointed and would take action to restore the public's trust.
"This is a painful chapter in our history, and now we have to move beyond the crisis to getting on with the business of educating our children," Hall said.
Hall is cooperating with the governor's investigation, but many parents have suggested that she resign.
A Pressure To Improve
Still, testing experts acknowledge that these high-stakes tests create immense pressure for principals and administrators to improve scores, so there can be a kind of desperation that leads to cheating. James Wollack, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says how Georgia deals with this situation will set a precedent for other states.
"Other schools, they should be looking to Georgia to say, 'Well, what should we be doing to reduce the likelihood of this happening here in our district?' " Wollack says.
As the governor's investigation continues, Atlanta's public schools are now holding 12 weeks of remedial classes for kids who failed the 2009 tests, and the district is figuring out how to improve test security.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported that a federal investigation is also under way to see whether schools fraudulently obtained federal education grants by manipulating test scores. (Follows)
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FEDS PROBE ATLANTA SCHOOLS: Feds probe Atlanta schools - U.S. Attorney's office to dig into possible fraud
By Alan Judd and Bill Rankin | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | http://bit.ly/bEZ61b
8:40 a.m. Sunday, September 26, 2010 - Federal authorities are investigating whether Atlanta Public Schools committed fraud by illicitly boosting scores on standardized tests, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.
Authorities have begun conducting interviews and may soon issue subpoenas for documents related to the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, according to officials familiar with the investigation. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss an open inquiry.
The CRCT provides a key measure of whether schools are meeting standards mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Meeting the standards can earn those schools additional federal money, which principals can spend for almost anything they wish.
But if the schools are found to have earned extra grants through inflated scores, officials could face criminal charges. The U.S. attorney’s office also could ask a judge to order the school district to reimburse the federal government. The bonus grants for Atlanta schools total nearly $360,000 a year.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Atlanta, Patrick Crosby, declined to comment. The region’s chief investigator for the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general did not respond to requests for an interview.
The school district has not received subpoenas or other requests for information from federal authorities, spokesman Keith Bromery said Friday. “We have no knowledge of any federal interest in or investigation of that matter.”
A federal investigation would represent a major expansion of the inquiries into how the Atlanta schools raised test scores. It also would underscore the degree to which the cheating scandal challenges the integrity of the district’s claims of steady academic improvement during the past decade.
The statistically improbable gains that some Atlanta schools posted on the CRCT first came to light in articles in the AJC in 2008 and 2009. When state officials studied erasures on CRCT answer sheets from 2009, they found excessive numbers of wrong-to-right changes in 58 Atlanta schools — more than two-thirds of the district’s elementary and middle schools.
The district’s own investigation, however, was mostly limited to 12 schools with the most erasures. Unsatisfied, Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed two special investigators: former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers and former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson. They have the authority to compel testimony and to prosecute criminal violations.
A federal investigation could complement rather than compete with the state inquiry, legal experts said. The two examinations may look at different aspects of the same case.
“Any time the U.S. attorney’s office decides to investigate something like this, it’s going to be very methodical, very document-intensive,” said Atlanta lawyer Jeffrey Brickman, a former federal prosecutor and a former DeKalb County district attorney. “They would start off by issuing subpoenas, then will review the documents and follow the evidence where it leads them.
“Both sides will have to be very careful not to step on each other’s toes and not compromise each other’s investigation. It’s always important to play well with others in the same sandbox.”
Officials familiar with the federal investigation say it is concentrating, at least in its initial stages, on how alleged cheating affected payments to the Atlanta school district from the federal Title I program. Title I is the section of U.S. education law that provides extra assistance for teaching poor children.
The federal government gives Title I money to schools where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Atlanta is scheduled to receive $39.5 million in Title I money during the current school year. Across metro Atlanta, Title I grants range from $484,160 for the tiny Buford school system to $43.5 million for DeKalb County.
The investigation, however, centers on extra grants that the federal government awards to Title I schools that achieve “distinguished” status. To do so, a school must demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” for three consecutive years. For elementary and middle schools, that requires increasing scores on the math and language arts sections of the CRCT and improving attendance.
Atlanta’s Parks Middle School, for instance, first achieved “distinguished” status in 2007. Federal education officials awarded Parks its first grant for that accomplishment — $7,848 — for the 2009-10 academic year.
But the state found suspicious erasures that improved CRCT scores last year in 89.5 percent of Parks’ classrooms, putting its grant money — and its “distinguished” title — in jeopardy.
Federal education officials declared 57 Atlanta schools to be “distinguished” during the last school year. They were to share in grants that totaled $359,386, far more than those in any other Georgia district.
Several months later, the state flagged 39 of those schools for excessive erasures on CRCT answer sheets. The state, which distributes the grants, will not release any of Atlanta’s money before the cheating investigation is finished, said Matt Cardoza, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education.
The Atlanta grants range from $712 to $11,772 per school.
Federal law requires that schools spend the grants for “educational purposes.” But it gives principals wide latitude. Field trips, instructional materials and employee bonuses are allowed. Buying tickets to movies or theme parks and purchasing school uniforms are not.
Although the grants are relatively small, the possibility that some may have been acquired through fraud gives federal authorities the jurisdiction to enter the case, officials familiar with the investigation said.
Even before federal officials got involved, tension was mounting between the state investigators and the school district.
Shortly after Perdue appointed Bowers and Wilson, the district hired a criminal defense attorney: J. Tom Morgan, who succeeded Wilson in 1992 as DeKalb’s district attorney.
Morgan has repeatedly offered to join the state investigation. He also has said the district may conduct its own, parallel inquiry. “APS and its counsel have and will continue to do everything we can to assist you,” Morgan told Bowers and Wilson in a Sept. 15 letter.
But Bowers and Wilson have threatened to take legal action against Morgan and the school district if they persist.
“Any attempt by APS to interfere with our investigation or to conduct its own investigation is obstruction, an attempt to influence witnesses, and tampering with evidence,” Bowers wrote to Morgan on Sept. 16. “I cannot put it more simply than this: APS may not under any circumstances investigate any employee in these matters during the pendency of our investigation.”
In case his point was missed, Bowers underlined the last sentence and printed it in italics.
The story so far
Last fall, the AJC reported statistically unlikely gains in test scores at some Atlanta schools on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in 2008 and 2009.
In addition, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement commissioned an erasure analysis of 2009 CRCTs statewide, which found suspicious erasure marks on thousands of tests from hundreds of classrooms across the state, suggesting answers had been changed at a much higher rate than is expected. The results were released in February.
Both analyses looked at tests administered to first- through eighth-graders in three subjects: language arts, reading and math.
Atlanta had 58 schools flagged, the highest number of any district.
The state Board of Education ordered 35 systems with suspicious erasures to investigate 191 schools statewide to find out if and how cheating occurred.
Atlanta named a blue ribbon commission to conduct its review, and that group hired consultants to do the analysis.
Questions were raised about the approach and thoroughness of Atlanta’s report, which found serious problems at only 12 of the 58 schools.
Critics said the consultant had redone the state’s analysis in a way favorable to the school system, rather than trying to determine if cheating was involved and how it occurred. It did little or no investigation of 33 of the schools.
Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall referred 108 educators to the state Professional Standards Commission, which licenses teachers, and temporarily reassigned the principals of the 12 schools.
In mid-August, Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed special investigators Mike Bowers, a former attorney general, and Bob Wilson, a former DeKalb County district attorney, to examine possible cheating in Atlanta and in Dougherty County.
Meet the reporters
- Bill Rankin joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1989, three years after his father, Jim Rankin (who is now deceased), retired from the paper after 26 years. For most of his time at the AJC, Bill has covered criminal justice and legal affairs. He grew up in Atlanta and is a product of the city’s public school system. He attended E. Rivers Elementary School and graduated from Northside (now North Atlanta) High School. He earned a political science degree from the University of Georgia in 1980.
- Alan Judd is an investigative reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, focusing on articles that hold government officials and institutions accountable to the public. Among other topics, he has written about suspicious deaths in state psychiatric hospitals, state laws that enable predatory lending practices, and poor treatment of children in Georgia’s privately run but publicly funded foster care system. A graduate of Western Kentucky University, Judd joined the AJC in 1999 after working for newspapers in Kentucky and Florida.