Former APS area superintendent Sharon Davis-Williams is led to a holding cell following her conviction Wednesday on violation of the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Jurors sorted through roughly five months of testimony against 12 former educators accused of engaging in a racketeering conspiracy to inflate test scores. Eleven of the 12 were convicted. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)
Photo: Kent D. Johnson
Photo: Kent D. Johnson

APS cheating case: From first hint of scandal to jury verdict

Dobbs Elementary, a poor school in a poor section of southeast Atlanta, pulled off a remarkable turnaround. One year, Dobbs was classified as “failing.” The next, nearly all its students passed state achievement tests.

So much improvement, so fast. For many testing experts, this transformation strained credibility. They wondered: Were Dobbs’ higher scores real? Or did the gains come from systematic cheating?

Dobbs faced these questions in 2001, nearly a decade before the Atlanta Public Schools became a national symbol for academic success through deception. No official investigation took place, and Atlanta’s then-new schools superintendent, Beverly Hall, intimated that skeptics were racist. After a couple of newspaper articles, the matter died out.

But cheating did not. In 2011, state investigators concluded that educators at 44 of Atlanta’s 56 elementary and middle schools, Dobbs among them, had cheated to help students pass Georgia’s standardized achievement test. The investigators blamed Hall for creating a culture so corrupt that lawlessness was inevitable.

The largest school-cheating scandal in U.S. history finally concluded last week when a Fulton County jury found 11 former Atlanta educators guilty of racketeering. Eight of the 11 also were convicted on additional charges, and each defendant could be sentenced to 20 years in prison. The jury acquitted one former educator.

Another 21 defendants pleaded guilty to lesser offenses before the trial began last September. But the culpability of the most pivotal figure in the case remains a mystery. Hall, who denied wrongdoing before and after her indictment in 2013, died of breast cancer on March 2 without standing trial.

The trial also failed to resolve lingering effects from Hall’s 12-year reign as superintendent.

The miseducation of thousands of Atlanta students, especially the poorest among them, deprived an entire generation of an honest assessment of their academic abilities. It is doubtful they could ever be made whole.

Likewise, the school system and the city itself still carry a taint from the cheating revelations. Google “school cheating scandal,” and to this day the first nine hits relate to Atlanta.

The cheating story’s arc — from the first suggestion of improprieties to the trial’s conclusion — has spanned more than 13 years, from Atlanta’s post-Olympic afterglow through a deep recession that sapped school resources to a new wave of gentrification that is changing the face of the city and its schools.

How much longer it takes to put the scandal in the past is anybody’s guess.

Hint of scandal

“Sudden rise in test scores stirs concern.”

Under that headline, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported on concerns that Atlanta schools were faking their way to success on Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, or CRCT.

The proportion of students who passed at least one section of the CRCT increased by 30 or more percentage points in 30 schools in a single year, the article said. At 10 of those schools, the pass rate rose by at least 40 points.

Even among such fantastic improvements, Dobbs stood out.

Only 21 percent of the school’s fourth-grade students passed the math portion of the CRCT in 2000, the first year Georgia administered the test. In 2001, 85 percent of Dobbs’ fourth-graders passed the math test — a gain of 64 percentage points.

Dobbs’ principal at the time, Doris Johnson, celebrated the gains as a triumph of the will.

“It means everything,” Johnson told the Journal-Constitution in 2001. “Because it says our hard work, our dedication, our faith in our boys and girls, our faith in ourselves, paid off.”

Johnson was never accused of cheating.

An education researcher at Georgia State University described the increases at Dobbs and elsewhere as jaw-dropping and said they warranted an outside investigation. An Atlanta school board member, Jean Dodd, publicly challenged the scores after the board used them to justify a bonus for Hall. By the time she retired in 2011, Hall would collect more than $580,000 in such bonuses.

Hall and her aides reacted swiftly, claiming skeptics didn’t believe poor black children could learn. It was an implicit accusation of racism — and a refrain Hall would sound repeatedly over the following decade.

What is now the Governor’s Office of School Achievement said it would draft a policy to govern test-score inquiries. But with no investigation under way, the story quickly fell out of the news.

The story had never gained much traction, anyway. The Journal-Constitution’s initial article appeared Sept. 30, 2001, not quite three weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Bigger worries about the world overshadowed doubts about test scores in Atlanta.

Fear of failure

By the middle of the past decade, turnaround stories like Dobbs’ had become common in the Atlanta schools — and expected.

Hall gave speeches around the country boasting of how Atlanta used data to drive up scores on standardized tests. She told audiences her administration had achieved one of the most elusive goals in public education: transforming a low-performing urban school system.

At home, Hall continually demanded that principals produce higher test scores. Her motto: “No exceptions, no excuses.”

Some educators said Hall acted less like a school superintendent than a corporate CEO, pushing her sales force to continually grow revenue. A small group of dissident principals who regularly met in secret during Hall’s tenure likened the district to Enron, the Texas-based company whose name became a synonym for corporate fraud.

Administrators at many schools devised ingenious ways to erase and correct students’ test answers, involving scores of teachers and other school employees. Some papered over office windows while a select group of educators tampered with test papers during the school day. One school threw an after-hours party at which teachers fixed answer sheets while downing margaritas.

Hall made test scores, no matter how they were achieved, the focus of an annual convocation at the Georgia Dome. She invited educators in her good graces — whose schools had met test-score targets — to sit near the arena’s stage. She relegated others to the bleachers.

“It was almost like having leprosy,” Christopher Waller, the former principal at Parks Middle School, testified in the cheating trial.

The potential for ostracism that Waller described may have motivated as much cheating as the promise of bonuses. Educators weren’t so much trying to earn more money as attempting to keep their careers from running off track.

Waller was golden, though. Parks was one of the city’s worst-performing schools when he became principal in 2006. But he met every target Hall set for Parks, no matter how unrealistic. Where 1 percent of students had scored in the highest range on the CRCT in 2006, 46 percent reached that level just one year later.

Waller became a minor celebrity in the national education-reform movement. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which championed Hall’s data-driven strategy, profiled Waller in an article praising the higher scores — scores he now admits he falsified. One of the 35 educators indicted in the cheating case, Waller pleaded guilty last year to making false statements. He received probation and was ordered to pay $50,000 in fines and restitution.

‘Support’ for Hall

Hall’s stature rose along with the test scores. She reached a pinnacle in 2009, when she was named national Superintendent of the Year. In a widely published photograph, Hall smiled broadly while wearing a heavy gold medal that signified the honor.

At the time, however, the school district’s facade of success was crumbling.

The Journal-Constitution began publishing articles that suggested Atlanta’s test scores were invalid. The newspaper’s analysis found increases that, from a statistical standpoint, were all but impossible.

State officials ordered the school district to arrange for an independent investigation. But what became known as the Blue Ribbon Commission was compromised from the start.

The group consisted almost entirely of people with business, social or civic ties to the district or to Hall. A private memo that surfaced later said chamber of commerce executives, among Hall’s most prominent supporters, had picked all but three commission members. The commission’s findings, the memo said months before the work was done, would “guide us in our support of Dr. Hall.”

The commission’s final report in August 2010 downplayed irregularities and, the Journal-Constitution reported, suppressed allegations that Hall knew about cheating much earlier than she acknowledged.

Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue considered the commission’s inquiry a sham. He appointed a trio of special investigators and gave them subpoena power to compel witnesses to talk. No other cheating case in the nation had been put under such intense scrutiny.

Still, local education bloggers predicted the investigators would come up empty-handed.

No one, the bloggers said, would ever confess to changing tests.

Coercion, cynicism

The investigators got off to a slow start. School employees expected retribution if they talked. Principals sometimes lurked outside rooms where investigators conducted sensitive interviews, adding to the employees’ insecurities.

“They were scared,” Richard Hyde, one of the investigators, said in a recent interview. “They didn’t know me. All they knew was the governor was snooping around.”

Working with former Attorney General Mike Bowers and former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson, Hyde decided to focus first on a single school: Venetian Hills Elementary in southwest Atlanta. Hyde, a former police detective, had patrolled the area as a young officer and knew the neighborhood well.

Hyde spent days “trolling,” as he put it, passing out his business card to school employees. Finally he met a teacher ready to unburden her guilty conscience. She confessed to helping falsify CRCT answer sheets and, just as important, agreed to wear a hidden microphone to record others admitting their complicity.

With the evidence the teacher helped gather, the investigators asked the governor for help from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Soon, dozens of agents descended on schools, interviewing anyone who might know how the cheating scheme worked.

The investigators eventually compiled a report that ran more than 800 pages. Cheating was pervasive, the report said, and Hall knew or should have known it was happening. Hall and other administrators, the investigators concluded, benefited from the deception. An unknowable number of students, they said, suffered the consequences.

The report decried “a culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence” that perpetuated the cheating scheme. When necessary, the report said, top administrators used intimidation to keep school employees quiet.

Tamara Cotman, a regional superintendent, told a group of principals to not cooperate with the state investigators. She instructed the principals to write memos telling investigators to “go to hell,” and then required the educators to read the messages aloud to their colleagues.

Another regional administrator, Michael Pitts, pointedly told teachers at Dobbs about a school where the staff reported the principal was cheating.

“Guess what?” Pitts reportedly said. “That principal is still there.”

Cotman and Pitts were among the 11 convicted last week.

Many educators seemed to need little coercion to break the law. With a minimum of prompting, one teacher came up with a plan to slice open a shrink-wrapped package of tests, make photocopies and then use a lighter to reseal the plastic.

Others approached their jobs with a stunning level of cynicism. One teacher rationalized cheating by saying her students were simply too dumb to learn.

A few days ago, as the trial neared its end, Hyde said the scandal was not as surprising as it might have seemed at first. Many of the educators who cheated were single parents who relied on their school salaries to support their families, he said. They must have felt cheating was their only choice when their superiors demanded higher test scores by any means necessary.

“I was raised with great respect for people who work in the public school system,” Hyde said. “Many of these folks were under tremendous pressure to perform and get the numbers up.”

Ultimately, dozens set aside their fear and bore witness to years of cheating. Others received judgment from a jury.

“The truth,” Hyde said, “has a way of coming out.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X