Report Eviscerates Atlanta Schools for Decade of Systematic Cheating

     ATLANTA (CN) - A stunning and exhaustive report for the governor concludes that "thousands of school children were harmed by widespread cheating in the Atlanta Public School System," in institutionalized corruption of standardized tests, directed from the central office, for a decade. Teachers and administrators gave children answers, erased incorrect answers, hid and altered documents, offered monetary incentives to encourage the cheating, and punished employees who refused to cheat, according to the report.
     More than 178 administrators and teachers from 56 elementary and middle schools in the Atlanta Public School System participated in the cheating on the standardized Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, according to the 3-volume report of more than 800 pages. (Volume 2, Volume 3, interview with retired superintendent.)
     Investigators found cheating in 44 of the 56 schools they examined about the 2009 standardized CRCT tests, "and uncovered organized and systemic misconduct within the district as far back as 2001. Superintendent Beverly Hall and her senior staff knew, or should have known, that cheating and other offenses were occurring. Many of the accolades, and much of the praise, received by APS over the last decade were ill-gotten."
     All quotations and references in this article are to the 3-volume report, and an accompanying 405-page interview with former Atlanta Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall. Throughout the report, prepared for Gov. Nathan Deal and delivered to him on June 30, the Atlanta Public School System is referred to as APS.
     What Happened
     "We found 178 educators as being involved in cheating," the report states. "Of these, 82 confessed. Thirty-eight of the 178 were principals, from two-thirds of the schools we examined. The 2009 erasure analysis suggests that there were far more educators involved in cheating, and other improper conduct, than we were able to establish sufficiently to identify by name in the report."
     The cheating took root as far back as 2001. Originating from the office of Superintendent Hall, it permeated the school system, from the district headquarters to principals' offices and teachers' classrooms of a majority of schools in the district. The Atlanta Public School System has more than 48,000 students.
     "A culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence infected this school system, and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct," the report states. "From the onset of this investigation, we were confronted by a pattern of interference by top APS leadership in our attempt to gather evidence. These actions delayed the completion of this inquiry and hindered the truth-seeking process."
     Nearly a year ago, former Gov. Sonny Perdue selected a three-member team of investigators, led by former Attorney General Mike Bowers, former DeKalb County Georgia District Attorney Bob Wilson, and a former Atlanta Police Officer turned investigator, Richard Hyde, to look into the widespread allegations of teacher- and administrator-led cheating on standardized tests in Atlanta public schools.
     For the report, the governor's investigators - 51 agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, attorneys and staff from the Atlanta law offices of Balch & Bingham and Wilson Morton and Downs - interviewed more than 2,100 people and pored over more than 800,000 documents.
     Money, promotions, tenure, federal aid, school rankings - and under the No Child Left Behind Act, their very existence - and students' college admissions and the resulting influence upon a school's reputation all are tied to the widely reported results of standardized tests.
     The CRCT, a multiple-choice test in reading, English/language arts, math, social studies and science, is administered to elementary and middle school students each year. The scores tests determine whether the school makes its "Annual Yearly Progress" required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
     For students in first and second grade, the teacher reads the questions aloud, twice, and students mark the answer in a test booklet.
     From grades three through eight, students read the test questions to themselves and pencil in the answer on a scannable sheet.
     In early 2010, the Governor's Office of Student Achievement (GOSA) presented a report conducted by standardized test maker CTB McGraw Hill, which alluded to test mishandling, based on an erasure analysis of the 2009 CRCT.
     "The GOSA erasure analysis, which was performed on the test answer documents for every elementary and middle school student in the State of Georgia, compared the number of wrong-to-right (WTR) erasures by grade, test subject and class to the average number of WTR erasures state-wide for the corresponding grade and test subject," the report states.
     "The results of the erasure analysis showed that in 35 Georgia school districts, including APS, a significant number of classes had WTR erasures that were dramatically and disconcertingly higher than the state average."
     McGraw Hill's analysis concluded that if a class had WTR erasures more than three standard deviations above the state average, there was no way the erasures could have occurred without external assistance.
     "The erasure analysis only flagged classes that departed from the norm by three or more standard deviations. But many classes in APS had standard deviations ranging from the 20's to the 50's. One classroom was at 53. It is virtually impossible for so many WTR erasures to occur without human intervention," the report states.
     Such extreme standard deviations produce numbers at astronomical or infinitesimal levels.
     The investigators hired Professor of Educational Measurement and Evaluation Gregory Cizek, from the University of North Carolina, to review the erasure analysis. He concluded that the probability that the high WTR erasures occurred randomly was like having Atlanta's sports venue The Georgia Dome filled to capacity, with "every person in the Dome being seven feet tall."
     "Amazingly, many APS teachers had high WTR erasures in all three subject areas - English/language arts, reading and math," the report states.
     "Not only did numerous teachers do something that was virtually impossible one time, but did it three times in a row. Even more amazing, several teachers in the same school did this multiple times."
     Organized Cheating
     With an 89.5 percent WTR erasure rate for the 2009 CRCT test, Parks Middle School had the highest erasure rate in Georgia. According to the report, the cheating at Parks started in 2006, after Principal Christopher Waller was hired.
     Based on interviews with more than 59 Parks Middle School personnel, a pattern of misconduct and intimidation had its genesis with Waller and was ignored by the central office.
     The report states that Waller directed cheating the first year he presided over CRCT testing in 2006, by handing a key to the room where the tests were kept to a teacher and directing the teacher to remove the plastic wrap from the test booklets, photocopy the tests, and put the tests back. The teachers, who received the test booklets in advance, reviewed the test and gave the correct answers to students.
     As the years went on, Waller widened the circle of teachers who agreed to cheat for him: "A select group of teachers that Waller organized and trusted would change wrong answers to right answers each day during the week of testing. There is also evidence that Waller directed cheating on the secured writing tests," according to the report.
     The school's test coordinator refused to cooperate. So Waller had his assistant principal and teachers to go into the test coordinator's office to retrieve test booklets, or change the answers on the tests in his office while he was gone, according to the report.
     Waller instructed them to take pictures of the test coordinator's desk, focusing on where the tests sat on the desk, so they could return the tests without his desk being undisturbed.
     Teachers who followed Waller's orders and cheated got high praise, and sometimes "incentives" for erasing wrong answers.
     Crystal Draper admitted to investigators that she cheated in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009, at Waller's direction, and got $1,000 in cash because of it, the report states.
     Though Parks Middle School topped the list for the percentage of erasures, reports of principal-led CRCT cheating and patterns of intimidation to persuade teachers and staff to cheat were widespread throughout 44 of the 56 APS schools examined.
     Cheating Parties
     At East Lake Elementary School, Principal Gwendolyn Benton "pressured teachers ... to 'find a way' to improve CRCT scores 'even if it meant breaking the rules,'" according to the report.
     Breaking the rules meant erasing wrong answers on the CRCT.
     Benton threatened to sue teachers "out the ass" if any of them "slandered" her to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the report states.
     The teachers who were interviewed described students who fell asleep or refused to complete the CRCT, but somehow "met or exceeded expectations on the CRCT.
     At Gideons Elementary, Principal Armstead Salters led teachers and staff in CRCT cheating by instructing his test coordinator to provide "answer key transparencies" to teachers, to help them change wrong answers to right ones.
     "Teachers prepared the answer keys by taking the tests themselves and marking correct answers on transparency sheets," according to the report's school summary. "Teachers returned the completed answer keys to Rogers [test coordinator] who distributed the answer keys and the students' CRCT answer sheets to other teachers. Teachers also prompted their students to change answers during the administration of the test."
     Some teachers held cheating parties.
     "One group of teachers took their students' answer sheets to the home of a teacher and held a 'changing party' over the weekend in Douglas County, Georgia. Other teachers changed their students' answer sheets after hours at school during the testing window," the report states.
     When Principal Salters got wind of the Governor's investigation he immediately told his teachers, "If anyone asks you about this, just tell them that you don't know. ... Just stick to the story and it will go away."
     According to monitored conversations led by the investigators, Venetian Hills Elementary School Principal Clarietta Davis "erased answers, wearing gloves, in her office," so she would not leave fingerprints on the tests. She ordered teachers to cheat from 2004 to 2009.
     Many of the 800 people who were interviewed said they feared being fired if they came forward to complain. Those who did come forward faced retaliation or had their complaints ignored by those closest to Hall.
     "The first person to report cheating to us provided the same information months earlier to his superiors, only to have the wrongdoers quickly exonerated while he was reprimanded," the report states. "This educator made these allegations known to the proper officials inside of APS ... that inquiry was brought to a swift, and predictable, conclusion. The guilty went free; the whistle-blower was punished."
     APS General Counsel Veleter Mazyck told investigators that one of her duties was to provide Superintendent Hall with "deniability."
     Mazyck's statements were some of the most stunning to the investigators.
     "I think what was most shocking to Richard, Bob and myself was the APS General Counsel telling us that it was 'her job' to promote Dr. Hall's deniability, directly from the highest office of APS," Bowers said. "That was an incredible revelation."
     'Did not read a single page'
     Principal Waller's behavior at Parks Middle School in 2005 became worrisome for some of his staff, prompting anonymous complaints to Superintendent Hall's office, and prompting the APS Office of Internal Resolution to send an investigator to Parks.
     Reginal Dukes, a retired Atlanta Police officer and an investigator an owner of Atlanta-based Phoenix Research and Investigations, was tapped by APS to investigate the allegations against Waller, including the allegation that he directed his entire staff to cheat.
     "Waller told his staff that elementary schools were cheating and that unless teachers at Parks cheated the school would continue to look bad," the report states.
     After interviewing Parks teachers and staff in early 2006, Dukes sent a memo and a report to Hall and APS, outlining the CRCT cheating that originated with Principal Waller.
     Both reports confirmed that Principal Waller coerced teachers into cheating; manipulated a federally funded after-school tutoring program; gave eighth-grade teachers a document titled "Tips for Passing the Eighth Grade Writing Test," to review the students; and added that Waller manipulated student attendance records and grades.
     Dukes said he met with Superintendent Hall, Deputy Superintendent Kathy Augustine, and three other senior members of APS, to review his findings with them.
     When he personally handed his findings to Hall, Dukes said, Hall "never opened the report and did not read a single page."
     "Despite the forewarning that cheating might occur, the district took no action to secure the upcoming CRCT testing environment with respect to the allegations made against Principal Christopher Waller," the report adds.
     In her testimony to investigators, Superintendent Hall and other APS senior staff members denied ever meeting with Dukes. And Hall continued to praise Waller's performance at Parks; some of the praise came in the way of money that augmented the principal's salary.
     When Waller threatened to quit in 2006, the Atlanta office of the Annie E. Casey Foundation gave Waller $10,000, with Hall's knowledge and approval.
     "Do you think if I had had any such conversation with anyone that I could have gone along with he's doing a good job?" Hall said, according to the investigator's transcript. "Just did not happen. Unless I was drugged and asleep, I have absolutely no recollection."
     But soon after Dukes turned in his report, changes were made at Parks' after-school program.
     "(O)ne result of the Dukes investigation was that the company that provided after-school tutorial services at Parks Middle School, in which Principal Waller had a financial interest, was no longer to do business with the district," the report states. Deputy Superintendent Augustine confirmed that Waller was told to "stop."
     A panel created and selected by The Atlanta Board of Education in 2010, dubbed the "Blue Ribbon Commission," conducted its own investigation of cheating but found that the CRCT testing environment was "tight."
     The Blue Ribbon Commission concluded that there was no "centrally coordinated" cheating, but that cheating may have occurred at specific schools.
     Dukes' report found its way to the governor's investigators through a former connection to Balch and Bingham.
     "One day, I was in the elevator and my cell phone was ringing and ringing. I was tired and I was deciding whether I even wanted to bother to answer it," Bowers said.
     "I'm glad that I did pick up the call. It was Reggie Dukes. Reggie had been a client of ours [at Balch and Bingham] and he called to tell me about a report he made in 2006 about cheating at Parks Middle School. Once he explained what he had, I told him to get over here immediately."
     'APS Is Run Like the Mob'
     Throughout the Governor's report, fear is the thread that sews together the actions of the superintendent's office, school principals and their teachers. The fear created a blanket of widespread cheating and misconduct.
     "APS is run like the Mob," former Venetian Hills Elementary Teacher Jacquelyn Parks told investigators. Parks, who admitted cheating on the CRCT, said she felt bullied into cheating and was afraid of retaliation by Hall's office.
     "The culture at APS is that if you are not a 'team player,' there are ways that APS can get back at you," Parks told investigators.
     In her lengthy interview, conducted on May 11, Hall said she had a history of working in some of the worst public school districts in the country - District 27 in Queens, New York and in New Jersey Public School. She says she turned the rough districts around and put them on the right track.
     When she took the job at District 27, the system was experiencing legal turmoil.
     "That particular district had 35,000 kids. And was a very diverse district, but the board had been accused of corruption," Hall told investigators.
     "The superintendent had worn a wire. There had been a commission convened to investigate. They were all removed. It was on '60 Minutes.' And I was asked to go in, or selected to go in to be the superintendent there."
     Hall then worked for 4 years as state superintendent of the New Jersey school system. Then she headed to Atlanta.
     Becoming APS superintendent in 1999, Hall emphasized a "data driven" system, based on a "target" program that held teachers and administrators accountable for student achievement, with the CRCT as the measurement tool.
     For example, if last year's eighth-grade class were high achievers, exceeding expectations on the CRCT, but this year's eighth-graders are low achievers, the low achievers were still expected to meet the "target" CRCT high test scores of the previous class.
     The targets become more difficult to hit year, no matter the skill level of the students and their propensity to pass or fail the test. This demand for continuing increase is an essential part of the No Child Left Behind Act. Ironically, the demand can make a state's highest-scoring school a "failing" school if its test scores fall incrementally in successive years.
     Almost every teacher and administrator interviewed for the cheating report said the pressure to exceed last year's "targets" was "unreasonable" - but they say Hall felt differently.
     "Dr. Hall articulated it as: 'No exceptions. No excuses.' If principals did not meet targets within three years, she declared, they will be replaced and 'I will find someone who will meet targets.'... Principals told teachers that failure to improve CRCT scores would result in negative evaluations or job termination. The unambiguous message was to meet targets by any means necessary."
     Hall replaced 90 percent of APS principals during her tenure.
     'By Any Means Necessary'
     Teachers and administrators faced humiliation in front of their peers, and at times in front of Hall herself, if they failed to meet the targets based on the CRCT data.
     "When principals, in groups of 10 to 12, met annually with Dr. Hall, each school's scores were displayed on large colorful graphs framed and hung on the wall around her conference room. During the meeting, Dr. Hall would ask each principal, one by one, 'Are you going to meet targets this year?'"
     No one dared to tell her no, according to the report.
     The principals, in turn, passed on the fear to their teachers by "any means necessary."
     At one school, a teacher who did not meet her target cowered under a desk during a faculty meeting.
     "Fear of termination and public ridicule in faculty and principals meetings drove numerous educators to cross ethical lines," according to the report. "Further, because targets rose annually, teachers found it increasingly difficult to achieve them. After a few years of increases, teachers found the targets unattainable and resorted to cheating."
     Venetian Hills Elementary School Testing Coordinator Milagros Moner, who admitted cheating in 2008 and 2009, said the culture at the school was one of "rule by fear," led by Principal Davis. He said it was this fear that motivated teachers to cheat - an act that violates the basic standard of their profession, and what they try to teach to children.
     "Teachers are afraid of losing their jobs and teachers compel themselves to do whatever they need to do to make sure that they do not lose their jobs because their students don't meet or don't exceed on the CRCT," Moner told investigators.
     "Everybody was in fear. It is not that the teachers are bad people and want to do it, it is that they are scared."
     The fear permeated the superintendent's office. A "former high-ranking district official" was fired based on a "sham investigation" of an APS employee the official was asked to terminate.
     The district official sent a letter to Hall, alleging that Chief Human Resources Officer Millicent Few ordered the destruction of all copies of an investigation into cheating during the administration of the CRCT at Deerwood Academy in the summer of 2008.
     The 2008 report, based on an investigation initiated by APS through Atlanta attorney Penn Payne, found cheating at Deerwood Academy.
     After the official objected to Few's order that the report be destroyed the official said, APS retaliated, by using the former employee that the official had fired.
     "Although APS denied retaliating against this official, the district paid over $30,000 to settle the claim and $5,000 in attorney's fees," the report states. "The charges in the letter are consistent with evidence we have obtained through other sources."
     Follow the Money
     Fear was not the only motivator for teachers and principals to meet their targets. Money was also involved.
     Each school that met 70 percent of targets received bonuses, ranging from $50 to $2,000 for every employee and staff member at the school.
     Superintendent Hall benefited financially as well.
     "Over the years, she received tens of thousands of dollars based on the reported CRCT results," according to the report.
     Hall retired before the state report was released, but not before giving sworn testimony to investigators that she knew nothing about the cheating, and that she is not responsible for it.
     "I believe still that there was no coordinated district-wide, centrally-orchestrated cheating," Hall told investigators.
     "The superintendent is accountable, but the superintendent is not responsible," she added.
     Bowers finds Hall's statement puzzling.
     "I wasn't an English major in college, however, when I looked up the words 'accountable' and 'responsible' in the dictionary; it sure looks like they mean the same thing to me."
     It 'Made You Want to Cry'
     The governor's investigators concluded that APS, under Hall's reign, was more concerned with test scores than the educational welfare of its students.
     "Some of the stories we heard made you want to cry," Bowers said.
     Whole classrooms of students who passed the CRCT through cheating were promoted to the next grade without knowing how to read.
     The fear of recrimination and retaliation was palpable among teachers and administrators during their interviews with investigators, though investigators promised them immunity against criminal prosecution.
     Bowers said one woman fainted during her testimony and others asked to hold a Bible while answering questions.
     In the weeks since the report's release, four district superintendents have been suspended - with pay - and APS Interim Superintendent Erroll Davis sent a letter asking for the resignation or voluntary retirement of the rest of the 178 teachers and administrators; 41 have complied.
     The rest either have sought or are seeking legal representation, including six APS educators who are represented by Atlanta defense attorney Bruce Harvey, of the Bruce Harvey Law Firm.
     Augustine accepted a position as superintendent of the Desoto Independent School System in Texas, a suburb of Dallas, but after the release of the investigation, the Desoto school board put her on paid leave; the board is working out an agreement for Augustine to step down.
     Georgia education officials are considering a recommendation in the report that Gov. Deal use a new state law to replace the members of the Atlanta School Board. And the Georgia Attorney General has sanctioned APS for violating open records laws.