This is the latest in a series of AJC investigative reports on possible cheating in Atlanta Public Schools. Since the AJC began investigating in 2008, state officials and independent experts have confirmed the AJC’s findings, leading to ongoing criminal investigations into Atlanta testing practices.
Atlanta Public Schools officials, including Superintendent Beverly Hall, carried out a broad campaign over two years to suppress mounting allegations of widespread cheating on standardized tests, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.
Hall, who built a national reputation on raising urban students’ test scores, worked with top aides and prominent supporters to minimize or conceal evidence that some of the district’s much-vaunted gains were not legitimate.
Public documents recently obtained by the AJC reflect an urgent, behind-the-scenes attempt to contain a scandal involving the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in 2009. Hall and other district officials exerted far greater influence than previously acknowledged on a purportedly independent investigation of 58 schools with suspicious test scores, the records show, and withheld critical information from the public and state officials.
For months, Hall’s public stance toward suggestions of endemic cheating in the 50,000-student system bordered on aloofness. But the documents, which include drafts of investigative reports and e-mails, show numerous instances when district officials’ actions contradicted their public statements.
Hall pledged not to interfere in a state-mandated investigation. But the records show she or her aides had a hand in virtually every facet of the inquiry: from screening potential investigators to interviewing witnesses to crafting and editing the final report of the panel leading the review, known as the Blue Ribbon Commission.
In an interview Friday, Hall said she has done everything possible to ensure that all allegations were thoroughly investigated and denied trying to obstruct any inquiry.
“I really believe that this attempt to create an image of a district covering things up really is not fair,” Hall said.
Commission leaders also denied hiding key information.
But drafts of the commission’s report show a diminishing negativity in each major revision. In particular, two significant sections were altered or deleted after commission members met with Hall for what records described as a “talk thru-review” of the report.
Over several weeks this spring and summer, references in the report to possible cheating at four additional schools, beyond the original 58, disappeared.
The report also dropped any mention of the most serious allegation concerning Hall to date: An anonymous caller claimed that she and two members of her inner circle had condoned cheating for years and told principals to achieve test-score targets “by any means necessary.”
Efforts to downplay irregularities surrounding the CRCT date to at least 2008. Through the end of 2009, Hall and her staff repeatedly denied cheating was a possibility and, at one point, Hall signed a letter to state officials that gave false information about an inquiry into test manipulation at one elementary school, a transcript of an employee hearing shows.
Finally, officials withheld an academic’s study that largely confirmed findings by the AJC last year of statistically improbable score gains that suggested cheating. Not even school board members got copies of the study.
This picture of apparent evasion emerges as state and federal criminal investigations into the alleged cheating move forward. The scandal has created a serious rift on Atlanta’s Board of Education, and Hall announced recently she will leave the district when her contract expires in June.
Hall has acknowledged no culpability. She has consistently expressed skepticism about irregularities in the test scores that helped lift her to national prominence.
“I do not believe there is a conspiracy and I do not believe it is widespread,” Hall said Friday. “I believe there were people who tampered with the test.”
Hall came to Atlanta in 1999, promising steady improvement in student performance. Scores on standardized tests would become the measure of success.
Two years later, education researchers flagged unusually large gains on CRCT scores and suggested an investigation. District officials refused. Test scores kept rising, and doubts faded.
In 2008, the specter of cheating returned when an AJC investigation questioned results of summer school re-tests of that year’s CRCT at Deerwood Academy. At the time, a district spokesman said officials were “satisfied that the gains were valid and defensible.”
A state investigation, however, found a suspicious number of erasures on answer sheets that improved Deerwood’s scores — “strong evidence,” state authorities concluded, of cheating.
Hall defended the school and its principal. On July 6, 2009, she wrote to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement saying the district had scrutinized the allegations and found them baseless.
“The portion of that investigation focusing on the ‘cheating charge’ is completed and concludes that there is no evidence, no basis in fact, that someone actually altered students’ answers,” Hall’s letter said. “Based on the external investigation, and the district’s thorough internal investigation, the district strongly disagrees with the allegations.”
But newly released documents dispute Hall’s assertion.
When an attorney for a Deerwood assistant principal requested the file on the internal inquiry, the district said none existed.
A transcript of a disciplinary hearing shows Deputy Superintendent Kathy Augustine told the lawyer that district employees had merely “pulled the data” on Deerwood students and deduced that no one had cheated. As for the external investigation that Hall cited, it wasn’t even completed until a few weeks after she sent her letter, Augustine conceded.
Consequently, in a legal motion, the assistant principal’s lawyer, Warren Fortson, wrote: “It is our serious, troubling contention that the letter from Dr. Hall is untruthful.”
On Friday, Hall acknowledged the letter was wrong. Her aides, she said, assured her it was accurate before she signed it, but “the wording turned out to be inappropriate. We should have said a review of the data had been done.”
The district’s handling of the Deerwood allegations foreshadowed its response over the following months to indications of more pervasive cheating.
In October 2009, the AJC reported that a dozen Atlanta schools had posted highly suspect changes in their scores on that year’s CRCT. The statistical likelihood of some of the swings: one in 1 billion.
Again, Hall and her aides said they didn’t believe cheating had occurred. Augustine said at the time, “We expect outliers every year.”
Nevertheless, the district brought in two experts to investigate.
The first, instructional consultant Douglas Reeves, said he observed teaching practices in the 12 schools that could account for the unusual score jumps. The district posted Reeves’ report on its website.
The other expert, Andrew Porter, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate education school, was hired to perform a detailed statistical analysis. In large part, he confirmed the AJC’s findings — a blow to the district’s attempts to explain away the “outliers.”
New records show Hall received a draft of Porter’s study on Feb. 22. He e-mailed her a second draft in March and his final version in May.
Hall did not share the reports with the Atlanta school board, members say. In July, when the AJC requested the documents under the state Open Records Act, district officials said they had no material from Porter.
It wasn’t until November, in the midst of the criminal investigations, that Porter’s report came to light.
Hall said she deleted e-mails containing the report. After determining the commission had its own copy, she said, “I never dealt with it again.”
In February, state education officials said their analysis of wrong-to-right erasures on students’ CRCT answer sheets found far more changes in Atlanta than in any other Georgia school district.
Hall publicly recused herself from an inquiry mandated by the state. It would be conducted, she said, by “a respected outside organization.”
The Atlanta Education Fund, a nonprofit group that assists the city’s schools, assisted the Blue Ribbon Commission, a 15-member group composed mostly of business leaders, many of whose companies did business with the school district.
From start to finish, newly released public records show, Hall and her staff played a direct role in the commission’s investigation. E-mails show the commission’s staff sending key documents, including one related to the panel’s mission and an executive summary of its report, to district officials for their review and feedback.
The district had received pointed advice to confront the cheating allegations head-on and to take the state’s findings seriously. But an e-mail exchange between Hall’s supporters suggest that she resisted, instead seeking to challenge the state’s findings with more data.
The district had “a leadership issue, not a data issue,” one candidate to assist the commission warned a Chamber of Commerce executive in February, records show.
The representative from the American Institutes for Research said that if he were Hall, he would pledge to act strongly, put new security procedures in place and do a forensic audit of some schools to show the district took the state’s revelations seriously. He said he would not simply request more data.
In one e-mail, Hall seemed to agree. “These are professionals whose integrity is in question,” she wrote, referring to educators in the schools under suspicion. “We have to dig as deep as we can to either convict them or clear their names.”
Yet that same day, Bill McCargo, president of the education fund, wrote in an e-mail that Hall wanted the contractor to review her analysis, “which she says has uncovered some ‘very compelling data’ which to some degree counters the erasure data, when it is compared with outcomes.”
After meeting with Hall, the consultant withdrew his firm from consideration and the commission hired Caveon Test Security, which performed its own analysis of test data. The hiring decision “was solely our call,” McCargo said.
Throughout the commission’s inquiry, some of Hall’s closest aides worked with investigators, raising questions of whether their involvement could intimidate those interviewed.
The commission hired the auditing firm KPMG to question school employees. For most interviews, however, senior officials from the school district sat in on or led the conversations with teachers and others.
Questionnaires for interviews obtained by the AJC included instructions to turn over all summaries of the sessions to Hall’s chief of staff, Sharron Pitts. Further, the forms instructed, Pitts should be notified immediately of any “items of significance” that arose during the interviews.
The district said last week the summaries were sealed in envelopes and not opened before Pitts turned them over to KPMG. District officials offered an explanation for Pitts’ involvement: that KPMG had instructed that Pitts be informed of significant developments so that she could, in turn, notify KPMG. Hall said district officials did not question that instruction.
In defending the probity of the investigation, commission members and school officials pointed to KPMG’s international stature. Coordinated cheating “would have surfaced,” Hall said on the district-owned radio station, WABE, in August. “KPMG is not just a mom-and-pop organization. They sent in their senior investigators.”
By June, however, the scope and independence of the commission’s inquiry had been undermined by soaring costs and dissatisfaction with KPMG.
The firm missed deadlines for finishing interviews and reporting findings, documents show. It provided an incomplete list of the names of employees referred for disciplinary action. Its presentations at commission meetings were so unclear that one aggravated member of the panel ordered a staff member to “never bring them in front of us again.”
A KPMG spokesman did not respond to requests for an interview.
With KPMG’s bills running far higher than the $350,000 the private education fund had budgeted, commission officials instructed the firm to stop following up on new investigative leads. The school district, according to commission documents, would take over further investigative work. McCargo said the commission was worried about meeting state-imposed deadlines for completing the investigation.
At the same time last summer, however, information that put the system — and Hall — in a bad light began dropping out of the commission’s reports.
Hall allegation deleted
By mid-summer, KPMG had compiled a 17-page memo that summarized 51 allegations against school district employees. First on the list: an anonymous report implicating Hall.
A caller to a tip line set up by KPMG alleged that, since 2000, Hall had been aware of cheating on standardized tests. One of her top aides, regional superintendent Sharon Davis-Williams, had “promoted” the concept of tampering with tests to principals, the caller said, and Augustine, the deputy superintendent, “was pushing the issue to the principals that they needed to have high test scores by any means necessary.”
The caller also claimed the district’s central office passed advance copies of the CRCT to certain principals, allowing them to give questions to students before the districtwide testing dates. Finally, the caller said, some teachers and administrators in certain schools had been known to change answers.
KPMG asked Hall, Augustine and Davis-Williams about the caller’s claims, the memo said. “All denied the allegations, stating that they had no involvement in cheating on the CRCT.”
Hall on Friday again denied the allegation. A district spokesman did not make Augustine and Davis-Williams available for interviews. In an e-mail, the district said “there has never been a directive from the central office or the superintendent to meet testing targets by falsifying records or cheating our students. There was never any cheating orchestrated by the superintendent.”
When the Blue Ribbon Commission finished its investigation, it reported 50 of the 51 allegations listed in the July memo, many of which came from anonymous tipsters.
The only deleted allegation was the one concerning Hall.
It’s not clear from the documents who made specific edits. The deletion of the Hall allegation occurred within five days of a meeting July 21 in Hall’s office, in which commission members and others briefed the superintendent on the investigation’s findings, according to commission documents.
Similarly, all references to Andrew Porter, the consultant whose study confirmed statistical indications of cheating, were removed from the commission’s reports within four days of the meeting with Hall.
Gary Price, the commission chairman, described the allegation about Hall as “broad and vague,” but said the panel nevertheless debated whether to keep it in the final report.
“It was taken very seriously,” he said. “This wasn’t an attempt to hide it.”
McCargo said the commission’s consultant, Caveon, suggested Porter’s study offered no additional insight. Price said the commission never discussed deleting Porter’s analysis to avoid reflecting poorly on the district.
Hall said she had “no input — zero” into the commission report.
‘Need APS input’
The commission’s edits, documents show, often downplayed its own findings.
A draft dated June 22 suggested that the district further investigate 20 schools. But a notation, in red type, said: “Need APS input.”
By the next draft, the number of schools had been reduced to 12.
The June 22 draft also said test scores may have been manipulated in 41 of the 58 schools. After consulting district officials, the report’s authors changed “41” to “12.”
A June 30 draft that originally described “circumstantial evidence” of irregularities was changed to mention “statistical indicators” of problems.
The commission also deleted mentions of the four other schools at which it found indications of cheating. In a separate letter, the commission suggested that Hall order investigations of those four middle schools: Brown, Bunche, King and Sylvan Hills.
The district said last week it had looked into one of the allegations earlier, but cannot proceed on the others until the state’s criminal investigation is completed.
Another allegation never made it out of district files.
Senior district officials received two anonymous letters — one in the fall, one this spring — accusing an administrator at one of the 58 schools, East Lake Elementary, of erasing and changing test answers. The district neither investigated nor passed along the tip to the commission to be scrutinized, as required by the state.
The district said it is re-examining how it handled the complaint.
As the commission completed its work last summer, Hall’s communications staff was seeking to divert attention from the scandal. In a memo to his bosses, the district’s media relations director, Keith Bromery, described a meeting at which he told principals about plans for handling reporters’ questions about cheating on the CRCT.
“I then spoke about the multitude of new and expanded programs and projects for the new school year that APS is rolling out to the media as part of the attempt to redirect and broaden the conversation beyond the CRCT matter,” Bromery wrote.
Among his examples: school remodelings, new programs, and the purchase of a school bus with a hybrid engine.
How we got the story
This article is based largely on hundreds of documents obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act from the Atlanta Public Schools and the Atlanta Education Fund, a nonprofit group that raises money for the school system.
The documents included drafts of an investigative report by a commission appointed earlier this year to look into irregularities in standardized tests at 58 Atlanta schools. Reporters also read e-mails between district officials and commission members and staff members working on the investigation.
The article is part of a series that has examined statistically improbable gains in test scores in Atlanta schools and how school district officials responded to them.