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Who We Are »
Betsy Combier

Help Us to Continue to Help Others »

The E-Accountability Foundation announces the

'A for Accountability' Award

to those who are willing to whistleblow unjust, misleading, or false actions and claims of the politico-educational complex in order to bring about educational reform in favor of children of all races, intellectual ability and economic status. They ask questions that need to be asked, such as "where is the money?" and "Why does it have to be this way?" and they never give up. These people have withstood adversity and have held those who seem not to believe in honesty, integrity and compassion accountable for their actions. The winners of our "A" work to expose wrong-doing not for themselves, but for others - total strangers - for the "Greater Good"of the community and, by their actions, exemplify courage and self-less passion. They are parent advocates. We salute you.

Winners of the "A":

Johnnie Mae Allen
David Possner
Dee Alpert
Aaron Carr
Harris Lirtzman
Hipolito Colon
Larry Fisher
The Giraffe Project and Giraffe Heroes' Program
Jimmy Kilpatrick and George Scott
Zach Kopplin
Matthew LaClair
Wangari Maathai
Erich Martel
Steve Orel, in memoriam, Interversity, and The World of Opportunity
Marla Ruzicka, in Memoriam
Nancy Swan
Bob Witanek
Peyton Wolcott
[ More Details » ]
Atlanta Schools' Cheating Scandal
Atlanta Public Schools are reeling from the fallout of a state investigation that confirmed reports of a massive test cheating scandal throughout the district. On Thursday, the interim state superintendent Erroll Davis announced four main reforms the district will adopt immediately, and vowed that educators who participated in the cheating would never teach in Atlanta public schools again.
How Fear and Intimidation Led to Massive Atlanta School Cheating
Color Lines

Atlanta Public Schools are reeling from the fallout of a state investigation that confirmed reports of a massive test cheating scandal throughout the district. On Thursday, the interim state superintendent Erroll Davis announced four main reforms the district will adopt immediately, and vowed that educators who participated in the cheating would never teach in Atlanta public schools again.

Earlier this week a report from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation revealed that 178 teachers and 38 principals had participated in cheating in the district. The new state investigation confirms a cheating scandal of stunning breadth. The GBI investigation confirmed cheating in 44 of 56 public schools they looked into. Eighty teachers confessed to participating in the district’s cheating.

The initial instances of cheating were reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The district ordered an audit of their reporting, which recently confirmed the AJC’s initial findings. The state investigation has been called the largest investigation of standardized test cheating in U.S. public schools. Much of the shock about Atlanta’s cheating scandal comes from the fact that the district had become a reform darling; in recent years it had made unbelievable jumps in test score gains, both in state and national standards tests.

Those results have been called into question now.

Atlanta’s teachers tried to raise flags years ago about being forced to help students cheat on standardized tests, said Verdaillia Turner, the president of the Atlanta Federation of Teachers.

In 2005, Turner said, one of her members came to the union with concerns about cheating that was happening at Dunbar Elementary School. The GBI report named Dunbar as a site where cheating on the state standards test, the CRCT.

“One teacher’s own daughter was in a lady, Ms. Ibey’s class,” Turner said. “That teacher’s daughter made over 830 on the reading part of the Georgia CRCT, and the teacher complained to me and said, “Turner, my daughter could not have gotten that score because she is in remedial reading.”

Turner said that after three teachers from Dunbar came forward with concerns about cheating at their school, Dunbar’s then-principal, Corliss Davenport, would “constantly come into their rooms and would say nasty things to them.”

“On the last day of school, Ms. Davenport put them in front of all the parents, lined them up, and said to the parents, ‘Parents, here are the teachers who are failing your students.’”

Turner said that attempts to file complaints and raise concerns with the board of professional standards, with the Office of Internal Resolution, with members of the board of education, were ignored, and that over the years Atlanta’s education officials helped orchestrate a complicated network to silence those who wanted to speak up about misconduct in schools.

Turner’s suspicions, and the concerns of her members, were confirmed by the recently released state report.

“The 2009 CRCT [test] statistics are overwhelming and allow for no conclusion other than widespread cheating,” a summary of the report from Gov. Deal’s office read.

The report laid out three main reasons for the widespread cheating: politicians and school officials set and enforced unreasonable targets for yearly testing progress that were to be met at any cost. This in turn helped institute a culture of fear and intimidation throughout the district. So obsessed was the district with test results, it discarded concerns about ethics.

“APS became such a ‘data-driven’ system, with unreasonable and excessive pressure to meet targets, that [former Atlanta Public Schools superintendent] Beverly Hall and her senior cabinet lost sight of conducting tests with integrity,” the report said. The report said that Hall and other district officials lied to investigators, ordered draft reports of earlier, separate investigations to be destroyed, and denied knowledge of misconduct that they in fact were well aware of.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released a statement Thursday, saying he was “stunned” at the confirmed reports of widespread cheating.

In October of last year, when the state investigation was still underway, Duncan said that any unethical behavior had to be addressed, but added that Atlanta’s stellar progress could not be forgotten.

“However, it cannot be ignored that under Dr. Hall’s leadership,” Duncan said, that Atlanta Public Schools had reported huge, double-digit jumps on the national standards tests.

“Whatever the outcome of the state investigation, these accomplishments should not go unrecognized,” he said at the time, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Atlanta is far from the only school district to be dealing with widespread cheating scandals. Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City have all had to respond to confirmed reports of cheating in public and charter schools in recent years. Testing critics say the proliferation of cheating is a symptom of the country’s obsession with testing and teacher accountability.

Reports of cheating have been located primarily in low-income neighborhoods where students of color are concentrated because these are the areas that feel the most pressure to turn around test score gains, said Bob Schaeffer, education director of FairTest, an advocacy group that’s critical of high-stakes testing.

“There just isn’t the incentive to cheat in wealthier neighborhoods because test scores are already high,” Schaeffer said, “but in low-income, urban areas for the most part, the political expectations are the most unreasonable for incredibly fast rates of progress.”

“We now know that Atlanta’s progress was at best exaggerated and at worst fradulent,” Schaeffer said.

“Teachers and administrators in a setting like that feel set up for failure. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place, between idiotic laws that have no relation to the educational reality, and which are being enforced through sanctions that include closing the school and firing the employees.”

Under No Child Left Behind, schools that do not meet their AYP, or adequate yearly progress targets on standardized tests, face closure and dramatic “turnaround” tactics that include a range of options, including putting the school up for charter school takeover, or, as Schaeffer said, calling on the entire school’s staff to be fired and no more than half rehired.

“This overemphasis on test scores has perverted the educational and ethical process,” Schaeffer said.

In Atlanta, the silencing fear teachers felt was further compounded by the fact that Georgia is a right to work state, Turner said, where teachers are not automatically unionized and do not have collective bargaining rights. The lack of leadership and representation meant that teachers were isolated from each other and did not have a unified voice to speak about their concerns without fear of retaliation.

“People need their jobs,” Turner said.

“The bottom line is this is an unfortunate consequence of this nation’s obsession with test scores and with putting so much weight on test scores to determine teacher and student performance,” said Janet Bass, a spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers.

“We don’t condone any kind of cheating,” Bass said. “But when our Atlanta affiliate exposed the problem they were ignored, and they heard crickets. And that’s the shameful part. They hurt the students more than anybody else.”

Investigation into APS cheating finds unethical behavior across every level
By Heather Vogell, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
5:00 a.m. Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Across Atlanta Public Schools, staff worked feverishly in secret to transform testing failures into successes.

Teachers and principals erased and corrected mistakes on students’ answer sheets.

Area superintendents silenced whistle-blowers and rewarded subordinates who met academic goals by any means possible.

Superintendent Beverly Hall and her top aides ignored, buried, destroyed or altered complaints about misconduct, claimed ignorance of wrongdoing and accused naysayers of failing to believe in poor children’s ability to learn.

For years — as long as a decade — this was how the Atlanta school district produced gains on state curriculum tests. The scores soared so dramatically they brought national acclaim to Hall and the district, according to an investigative report released Tuesday by Gov. Nathan Deal.

In the report, the governor’s special investigators describe an enterprise where unethical — and potentially illegal — behavior pierced every level of the bureaucracy, allowing district staff to reap praise and sometimes bonuses by misleading the children, parents and community they served.

The report accuses top district officials of wrongdoing that could lead to criminal charges in some cases.

The decision whether to prosecute lies with three district attorneys — in Fulton, DeKalb and Douglas counties — who will consider potential offenses in their jurisdictions.

For teachers, a culture of fear ensured the deception would continue.

“APS is run like the mob,” one teacher told investigators, saying she cheated because she feared retaliation if she didn’t.

The voluminous report names 178 educators, including 38 principals, as participants in cheating. More than 80 confessed. The investigators said they confirmed cheating in 44 of 56 schools they examined.

The investigators conducted more than 2,100 interviews and examined more than 800,000 documents in what is likely the most wide-ranging investigation into test-cheating in a public school district ever conducted in United States history.

The findings fly in the face of years of denials from Atlanta administrators. The investigators re-examined the state’s erasure analysis — which they said proved to be valid and reliable — and sought to lay to rest district leaders’ numerous excuses for the suspicious scores.

Deal warned Tuesday “there will be consequences” for educators who cheated. “The report’s findings are troubling,” he said, “but I am encouraged this investigation will bring closure to problems that existed.”

Interim Atlanta Superintendent Erroll Davis promised that the educators found to have cheated “are not going to be put in front of children again.”

Through her lawyer, Hall issued a statement denying that she, her staff or the “vast majority” of Atlanta educators knew or should have known of “allegedly widespread” cheating. “She further denies any other allegations of knowing and deliberate wrongdoing on her part or on the part of her senior staff,” the statement said, “whether during the course of the investigation or before.”

Don’t blame teachers?

Phyllis Brown, a southwest Atlanta parent with two children in the district, said the latest revelations are “horrible.” It is the children, she said, who face embarrassment if they are promoted to a higher grade only to find they aren’t ready for the more challenging work.

Still, she doesn’t believe teachers should be punished.

“It’s the people over them, that threatened them, that should be punished,” she said. “The ones from the building downtown, they should lose their jobs, they should lose their pensions. They are the ones who started this.”

AJC raised questions

Former Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered the inquiry last year after rejecting the district’s own investigation into suspicious erasures on tests in 58 schools. The AJC first raised questions about some schools’ test scores more than two years ago.

The special investigators’ report describes years of misconduct that took place as far up the chain of command as the superintendent’s office. The report accuses Hall and her aides of repeatedly tampering with or hiding records that cast an unflattering light on the district.

In one case, Hall’s chief Human Resources officer Millicent Few “illegally ordered” the destruction of early, damning drafts of an outside lawyer’s investigation of test-tampering at Atlanta’s Deerwood Academy, the report said.

Another time, Few ordered staff to destroy a case log of cheating-related internal investigations after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested it, the report said. Few told staff to replace the old log with a new, altered version. When the district finally produced the complaints, the investigators wrote, it illegally withheld cases that made it “look bad” — either because its investigation was poor or because wrongdoing received minimal sanction.

Few also made false statements to the investigators, the report said.

Few, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, denied to the investigators that she tampered with documents or ordered anyone else to do so.

Lying to investigators and destroying or altering public records are felonies under Georgia law with a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Deputy Superintendent Kathy Augustine, as well as area superintendents Michael Pitts and Tamara Cotman, also gave the investigators false information, the report said, and the district’s general counsel Veleter Mazyck “provided less than candid responses.”

The report also said Hall and Augustine illegally suppressed a report by a testing expert last year. Andrew Porter, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, largely confirmed an AJC analysis that suggested cheating occurred, but the district withheld his findings from the media and public.

Augustine, Pitts and Cotman could not be reached Tuesday. Mazyck referred questions to her attorney. “I’m shocked that they would characterize her statements as less than candid,” said Richard Sinkfield, Mazyck’s attorney. “She was fully cooperative, fully open, and has not participated in any wrongdoing.”

The investigators said district officials misled them and hampered their investigation.

“Dr. Hall pledged ‘full cooperation’ with this investigation, but did not deliver,” the report said. “APS withheld documents and information from us. Many district officials we interviewed were not truthful.”

‘The chosen ones’

The district passes its scores on to the state each year and pledges they are accurate. Giving a “false official writing” is also a felony.

In some schools, the report said, cheating became a routine part of administering the annual state Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. The investigators describe highly organized, coordinated efforts to falsify tests when children could not score high enough to meet the district’s self-imposed goals.

The cheating cut off struggling students from the extra help they would have received if they’d failed.

At Venetian Hills, a group of teachers and administrators who dubbed themselves “the chosen ones” convened to change answers in the afternoons or during makeup testing days, investigators found. Principal Clarietta Davis, a testing coordinator told investigators, wore gloves while erasing to avoid leaving fingerprints on answer sheets.

Davis refused to answer the investigators’ questions. She could not be reached Tuesday.

At Gideons Elementary, teachers sneaked tests off campus and held a weekend “changing party” at a teacher’s home in Douglas County to fix answers.

Cheating was “an open secret” at the school, the report said. The testing coordinator handed out answer-key transparencies to place over answer sheets so the job would go faster.

When investigators began questioning educators, now-retired principal Armstead Salters obstructed their efforts by telling teachers not to cooperate, the report said.

“If anyone asks you anything about this just tell them you don’t know,” the report said Salters said. He told teachers to “just stick to the story and it will all go away.”

Salters eventually confessed to knowing cheating was occurring, the report said. He could not be reached Tuesday.

At Kennedy Middle, children who couldn’t read not only passed the state reading test, but scored at the highest level possible. At Perkerson Elementary, a student sat under a desk, then randomly filled in answers and still passed.

At East Lake Elementary, the principal and testing coordinator instructed teachers to arrange students’ seats so that the lower-performing children would receive easier versions of the Fifth Grade Writing Tests.

Principal Gwendolyn Benton, who has since left, obstructed the investigation, too, the report said, when she threatened teachers by saying she would “sue them out the ass” if they “slandered” her to the GBI.

When the investigators interviewed Benton, she denied knowing cheating took place. She could not be reached Tuesday.

District employees suffered intense stress — enough to send at least one to the hospital — in a workplace where threats from supervisors kept them from reporting wrongdoing for fear of losing their jobs.

Area superintendents, who oversee clusters of schools, enforced a code of silence. One made a whistle-blower alter his reports of cheating and placed a reprimand in his file — and not the cheater’s. Another told a teacher who saw tampering that if she did not “keep her mouth shut,” she would “be gone.”

“In sum, a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation permeated the APS system from the highest ranks down,” the investigators wrote. “Cheating was allowed to proliferate until, in the words of one former APS principal, ‘it became intertwined in Atlanta Public Schools ... a part of what the culture is all about.’ ”

Three key reasons

The investigators gave three key reasons that cheating flourished in Atlanta: The district set unrealistic test-score goals, or “targets,” a culture of pressure and retaliation spread throughout the district, and Hall emphasized test results and public praise at the expense of ethics.

Because the targets rose each time a school attained them, the pressure ratcheted up in classrooms each year. Cheating one year created a need for more cheating the next.

“Once cheating started, it became a house of cards that collapsed on itself,” the investigators wrote.

Educators most frequently cited the targets to explain cheating.

“APS became such a ‘data-driven’ system, with unreasonable and excessive pressure to meet targets, that Beverly Hall and her senior cabinet lost sight of conducting tests with integrity,” the report said.

The investigators said Hall’s aloof leadership style contributed directly to an atmosphere that fueled cheating.

She isolated herself from rank-and-file employees, the report said. Mazyck, the district’s general counsel, told investigators that her job was to provide Hall with “deniability,” insulating Hall from the need to make tough choices.

Sinkfield, Mazyck’s attorney, said the investigators took her statements about law practice in general “totally out of context.”

A major reason for the ethical failures in Hall’s administration, the investigators wrote, was that Hall and her senior staff refused to accept responsibility for problems.

“Dr. Hall and her senior cabinet accepted accolades when those below them performed well, but they wanted none of the burdens of failure,” the report said.

The district’s priority became maintaining and promoting Hall’s image as a miracle worker.

After an earlier investigation into cheating by a group of civic and business leaders, Hall was under pressure to crack down. The investigation was flawed, however, producing allegations but no confessions.

Nonetheless, Hall forwarded the names of about 100 Atlanta educators to the teacher licensing board for possible disciplinary action. She did so based on statistics showing high erasures in certain classrooms, despite the fact that someone other than the teacher could easily have done the erasing.

The investigators said Hall made the referral so it appeared she was taking a tough stance.

They called her actions “unconscionable.”

The report also touched on the support the Atlanta business community has provided Hall for years.

Her supporters were so concerned the district’s problems would reflect poorly on the Atlanta “brand,” the report said, that they attacked those who asked questions about the district’s purported success. A senior vice president at the Metro Atlanta Chamber, for instance, suggested a report commissioned by business and civic leaders that found cheating was limited to a dozen schools would need to be “finessed” past Gov. Sonny Perdue, the report said.

That effort failed. Perdue appointed the special investigators in August 2010.

Hall preferred to spend her time networking with philanthropic and business leaders rather than walking the halls of her schools, the investigators found.

But when the scandal erupted, she withheld key information — state data on the suspicious erasures — even from executives and civic leaders who the school board, at Hall’s urging, appointed to conduct the inquiry.

“In many ways, the community was duped by Dr. Hall,” the report said. “While the district had rampant cheating, community leaders were unaware of the misconduct in the district. She abused the trust they placed in her.

“Hall became a subject of adoration and made herself the focus rather than the children,” the investigators wrote. “Her image became more important than reality.”

Staff writers Alan Judd, Kristina Torres, and Jaime Sarrio contributed to this article.

© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation