Is Atlanta Public Schools facing another cheating scandal?

The Atlanta school district will conduct a “comprehensive review” to determine the extent of its problem with improper grade changing, district officials said Friday, following several instances of students receiving grades they didn’t earn.

District investigative reports released in response to public records requests from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News show more than 200 cases of improper grading practices, including unjustified grade changes.

Just earlier last week, chief accountability officer Bill Caritj had said he believed the reports were “individual people in isolated cases making bad judgments.”

At the request of Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, APS has sent his office information about some of the cases, APS spokeswoman Jill Strickland said.

Strickland said district staff would recommend safeguards to put in place before the start of the next school year.

Circumstances the reports describe will sound depressingly familiar to those who followed Atlanta’s last cheating scandal, in which 11 former educators were convicted of crimes connected to cheating on state tests: principals pressuring employees to change grades; retaliation against those who balked; and supervisors allegedly ignoring or implicitly approving the signs of cheating.

Caritj, who became the district’s chief accountability officer at the start of this school year, said he wasn’t aware of alleged improper grading practices until receiving media questions earlier this month. Reports of the grading problems had been handled as personnel issues, he said.

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has refused repeated requests to speak with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the grade-changing allegations. She issued a written statement saying in part that “unethical behavior will not be tolerated at APS.”

Things were supposed to be different under Carstarphen, who began work last summer.

But the grading revelations leave Rolanda Veal, a school secretary who reported grading problems at Carver School of Technology to district investigators, as one of many APS employees and parents with one big question:

“Wow, did the culture ever change?” she said.

The improper grading allegations concern at least four high schools: B.E.S.T. Academy, Carver, South Atlanta and Washington. In some cases, principals changed grades; others involve principals entering unearned grades for entire classes or ordering teachers not to fail students.

In several cases, teachers and staff claimed they were retaliated against for reporting the grade manipulation, but district investigators said retaliation claims were justified in only a few cases.

Even after confirming multiple allegations of improper grading practices over the past five years, APS has done little to stop similar cases from occurring over and over again.

The district does not monitor the number of grade changes, spokesman James Malone said. And although a new policy approved in December requires parents and an associate superintendent to be notified of any grade changes, the district has not set up a formal notification process.

The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, which audited state test administrations in response to allegations of cheating, is not in discussions about auditing Atlanta’s grading practices, GOSA executive director Martha Ann Todd said.

“If there’s some large concern about data in APS, it hasn’t been brought to my attention in an official capacity,” she said.

Richard Quartarone, co-president of the Southeast Atlanta Communities for Schools, said he hopes the allegations aren’t true. If they are, he said it further erodes trust in the district’s educators.

“Anything is possible and there’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “I think what it comes down to is I want educators to be educators. I want them to do the best for their schools. When you start manipulating the data, it hurts the kids, it hurts the school and it hurts the credibility of those who are doing good work.”

Pressure to give student-athletes or the children of particularly persistent parents grades they may not have earned isn’t new. But principals and teachers are under more pressure now to meet graduation-rate goals and other local and state performance targets.

Principals can lose their jobs if their schools have low graduation rates. Students who don’t pass courses are more likely to drop out.

“There are incentives to keep kids moving,” said Barbara Stengel, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

A new grading policy the Atlanta school board approved this school year requires teachers to reteach and retest students who are struggling — and bars them from grading students on classroom behavior or whether they turn in work on time. The intent is to give students better feedback and help more students graduate ready for college or careers, according to board records.

But even in past years, some teachers said they’re under pressure to pass students who have not mastered material.

At Douglass High School, administrator Libra Royster took teachers to task for what she described as the “extremely high” failure rate for ninth-graders, according to a 2013 memo to school staff.

“What’s your solution for having such high failure rates? On Friday, I asked some of you this very question and from the responses there was no solution cited — only blame assigned to our students for not studying and not coming to class prepared,” she wrote.

In the APS state test-cheating case, educators were accused of being part of a corrupt organization.

“Corruption implies people are getting paid off to keep things the way they are,” Stengel, the Vanderbilt professor, said. “I’m more inclined to think” that at APS, instead, “it’s a huge hot mess of everyone covering their own butts and then intimidating other people … into protecting them.”

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Staff writer Eric Stirgus contributed to this article.

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