State investigators have uncovered a decade of systemic cheating in the Atlanta Public Schools and conclude that Superintendent Beverly Hall knew or should have known about it, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.
In a report that Gov. Nathan Deal planned to release today, the investigators name nearly 180 educators, including more than three dozen principals, as participants in cheating on state curriculum tests, officials said over the weekend. The investigators obtained scores of confessions.
The findings suggest the national accolades that Hall and the school system have collected — and the much-vaunted academic progress for which she claimed credit — were based on falsehoods. Raising test scores apparently became a higher priority than conducting the district’s business in an ethical manner.
Officials who have seen the report briefed the AJC on its contents before the document’s release. The officials requested anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information.
The report’s release culminates more than two years of inquiries into Atlanta’s huge gains on the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in 2009. An AJC analysis first detected statistically improbable increases in test scores at two Atlanta schools in 2008. The following year, the AJC published another analysis that found suspicious score changes on the 2009 CRCT at a dozen Atlanta schools. The newspaper’s reporting ultimately led to the state investigation that is being released today.
The investigators’ report, officials said, depicts a culture that rewarded cheaters, punished whistle-blowers and covered up improprieties. Strongly contradicting denials of cheating and other irregularities by Hall and other top district executives, the report describes organized wrongdoing that robbed tens of thousands of children — many of whom came from disadvantaged backgrounds and struggled in school — of an honest appraisal of their abilities.
At the same time, the document apparently provides a scathing assessment of the school system’s handling of the scandal, accusing district leaders of hampering the special investigators’ efforts to uncover the truth. The investigators reportedly accuse Hall and her top aides of refusing to take responsibility for the district’s problems.
The report also will detail potentially criminal acts by district officials, the AJC has learned.
In an effort to maintain Hall’s high profile in national education circles, the superintendent and her top aides reportedly tried to hide unflattering information as far back as 2006. District officials illegally altered documents related to the test and withheld material that should have been released under the state’s Open Records Act, the report is expected to say.
In Georgia, it is a felony to destroy or alter government records. It also is a felony to lie to investigators. The maximum punishment for such crimes is a 10-year prison sentence.
At least three district attorneys – in Fulton, DeKalb and Douglas counties – could have jurisdiction to file criminal charges related to conduct detailed in the investigators’ report.
The trio of investigators – former Attorney General Mike Bowers, former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson and Richard Hyde, a former Atlanta police officer who investigates judicial misconduct – spent more than 10 months looking into allegations of widespread cheating on the CRCT in Atlanta schools.
Former Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed them last August because he was dissatisfied with how the district responded to the state’s finding high numbers of suspicious erasures on the 2009 CRCT in 58 Atlanta elementary and middle schools.
By October, 50 of the GBI’s 240 agents were assisting with the inquiry, visiting schools across the district to interview teachers and administrators.
The special investigators delivered their conclusions to Deal’s office on Thursday. The governor announced last week he would discuss the report during a news conference today in the Capitol.
The investigators did not return calls seeking comment over the weekend.
School district officials had not seen the report on Monday and would have no comment, spokesman Keith Bromery said.
The report’s release comes less than a week after Hall departed from the district. It is likely to provide the harshest critique to date of her 12-year tenure, which reached an apex in 2009 when she was named Superintendent of the Year for the nation.
Hall has repeatedly denied any involvement in cheating. For years, she disputed all allegations of widespread cheating in the district. But last month, in a farewell video to her staff, she finally acknowledged wrongdoing – by other district employees.
Hall’s attorney, Richard Deane, said Monday the investigators had not shared their report or discussed their findings with him or his client. “So I’m not in a position to respond to it or react in any way,” Deane said.
A divided school board and flare-ups of multiple cheating-related controversies involving some of Hall’s top aides have kept the system in the news and drawn harsh criticism from the public since Hall announced in November that she would leave when her contract expired June 30.
Though allegations of cheating have swirled publicly for years, and Hall has been battered for more than six months with accusations of a cover-up, the Atlanta school board allowed her to finish out her current contract.
The special investigators’ efforts fall on the heels of an earlier and, by all indications, superficial investigation by a group of civic and business leaders called the Blue Ribbon Commission that was supposed to conduct an examination independent of the district. That inquiry netted no confessions. But, as the AJC has reported, upper-level district officials continued to exert influence on the commission’s investigation and the findings it eventually made public.
The commission’s report said cheating was largely concentrated in just a dozen schools, leading Hall to claim that the rest had been “cleared.”