Atlanta referrals on hold as teacher licensing board waits for state cheating investigation

Employee referrals for alleged cheating on state tests are on hold, as a key state agency waits for special investigators to dig deeper into Atlanta Public Schools.

Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed two former prosecutors last Friday to be joint special investigators into the cheating scandal, which erupted early this year and found new life when Perdue accused Atlanta and one other Georgia school system, Dougherty County, of incomplete local investigations.

Gary Walker, director of educator ethics for the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, a state agency that polices state teaching credentials, said Thursday the special investigators asked his agency to hold off until they complete their work in the two systems. Some of the commission's staff will also help in the state investigation as needed, Walker said.

The state in February ordered local investigations in Atlanta and 33 other school systems after it found a high number of suspicious erasures on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. Atlanta's local investigative report was compiled by a commission appointed by the school board to review 58 city schools flagged by the state. It was released Aug. 2, following a nearly six-month investigation.

The Atlanta investigators reported that widespread cheating appeared to be limited to 12 schools. Some problems were identified at 13 schools. The commission noted fewer concerns among the other 33 schools. It recommended 109 employees for further investigation.

However, state officials said the commission's approach in Atlanta conflicted with instructions from the state, including use of a different standard to assess test data. Additionally, the state received evidence of interviews for only 32 of the 58 schools identified. Some employees gave non-responsive answers to questions at half of the dozen schools the district found most suspicious.

Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall had already begun to refer 108 of those employees to the professional standards commission when Perdue announced the state investigation last week. He said then the city's incomplete report meant only eight Atlanta employees faced legitimate complaints, including specific allegations of wrongdoing, that could be pursued by the state commission.

Walker said Thursday that Atlanta had completed another nine complaints involving employees identified in the local investigation, for a total of 17. The commission in September is expected to accept recommendations to investigate those 17 cases but then immediately extend them, pending the outcome of the state investigation.

Sanctions by the professional standards commission can range from a reprimand to loss of a teaching license. The state's special investigators, former State Attorney General Mike Bowers and former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson, could additionally refer cases to local authorities or the state attorney general's office for prosecution.