CRCT scandal tests Atlanta school superintendent's image

Superintendent Beverly Hall told a national audience of educators about Atlanta schools’ steady strides forward at a conference in Phoenix Wednesday.

But back home that same day, Georgia officials were unveiling findings that call into question how much of that progress was real.

Hall is at the high point of her career, basking in national accolades for a dramatic turnaround of the city’s schools — with rising state test scores cited as key evidence. Those scores are suddenly in doubt.

More than two-thirds of Atlanta’s public elementary and middle schools face investigations into cheating after the state unveiled a statewide analysis of suspicious erasures on standardized tests. Atlanta had more schools flagged than any other district. In one school, nearly 90 percent of classrooms are under scrutiny.

The scandal threatens to undermine the image Hall has cultivated as the tough-talking leader of a district that overcame a troubled past through hard work, a no-excuses attitude and innovative teaching methods. That image has plunked Hall and the system on a national stage, and attracted millions in grants from corporate foundations.

Last week, Hall said she is concerned but not convinced wrongdoing took place. She said she will wait for a deep district investigation to reveal whether cheating occurred or whether another factor, such as students overzealously rethinking answers, is to blame for the high number of erased wrong answers.

She said she is taking a dispassionate approach.

“I don’t want to become too emotionally involved in it or be accused of becoming emotionally involved,” she said in an interview Thursday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

But test scores provoke visceral reactions from most educators. They make or break careers in an era when federal standards use them to pass judgment on every school. For Hall, test scores brought criticism when they stagnated during her last post in Newark. And they brought her acclaim in Atlanta, where she is finishing up a term as the country’s Superintendent of the Year.

In coming weeks, Hall said the district will enlist the help of outside experts to look at data and use other techniques to study the 58 schools state officials said must be investigated.

But allegations of cheating have swirled before in Atlanta. So have questions about the district’s ability to police itself.

In July, Hall’s response to an earlier, more limited state cheating investigation drew a rebuke from Gov. Sonny Perdue. While the state said erasures provided strong evidence of cheating at Atlanta’s Deerwood Academy in 2008, Hall argued the findings did not prove impropriety.

Not pervasive?

Hall said in August she did not believe cheating was “pervasive” in the system.

In October, the AJC reported a dozen other Atlanta schools posted highly unlikely gains or drops on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, the state’s main academic measure for students in grades one through eight. For some, the odds of such changes were less than one in a billion.

“We expect outliers every year,” Deputy Superintendent Kathy Augustine said at the time.

The district at first said it had no reason to investigate, but announced days later outside experts will review the AJC’s findings.

One released his report last week. Education consultant Douglas Reeves wrote that he had visited the 12 schools and “based on the practices in these schools, it would have been surprising if test scores had not improved significantly.”

Reeves’ expertise, however, is in instructional practice, not cheating, Hall conceded.

Last week, Hall said the district will take immediate action against anyone found cheating. But she said she does not want to risk tarnishing innocent educators’ reputations by jumping to conclusions.

The district’s internal investigations have encountered challenges. An AJC story last year reported the district has sometimes left cheating allegations unresolved and marked complaints unsubstantiated more often than metro peers. In three years, records showed, just two teachers left after the district found cheating. Departures were more frequent in Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb.

A former teacher at Atlanta’s Cook Elementary said Friday that no one followed up after she told district officials that other teachers talked about cheating by pointing to answers or hinting at them during the 2007-2008 school year. She declined to be identified because she still works in the field.

Like several other teachers the AJC has interviewed, she said the pressure to make the school appear successful was intense. “I was told very often, ‘If your children do not pass, you won’t be back next year,’ ” she said, adding that she didn’t cheat.

She said she talked about what she’d heard in an exit interview when she left to take a job at a private school.

The year before, a Cook staff member had been warned not to point to wrong answers after a parent complained, records show. But no internal probe into cheating took place in 2008, according to documents provided to the AJC after a request for all such investigations. A spokesman said Friday the district is checking into the matter.

Cook was flagged by the state as a “severe concern” because more than 40 percent of classrooms exhibited suspicious erasures in 2009.

Atlanta investigators have at times struggled to find willing witnesses to talk about complaints, especially those that are anonymous, records show. District teachers have said they are afraid to step forward and report irregularities because they fear retaliation.

Witnesses who feel comfortable talking could prove crucial to the district’s current efforts to determine what happened in some classrooms. Hall said they should come forward.

Yet she said she has no sympathy for those who are afraid to step up. “How can I even have some sympathy for people who have no courage when children are being hurt, and the system is being hurt?” she asked.

“It’s hard for me to believe that you can be intimidated into lying and cheating,” she said. As for witnesses who don’t report wrongdoing, she added, “it’s the same thing, you’re covering up for liars and cheaters.”

Teachers have also said the system’s use of monetary rewards for meeting district test-score goals adds an incentive to cheat. Bonuses range from $50 for bus drivers to as high as $2,000 for educators.

In 2008, the district spent more than $2 million on the bonuses. Hall received an extra $82,000, partly because of test score increases. Each year a school meets its targets, they go up — increasing the pressure and, some teachers say, the motivation to cut corners.

The district said in a written statement last week that it has no plans to alter the program. The system is a “pioneer” in pay-for-performance, which is an element currently favored in proposed state and federal reform plans, the statement said.

A difficult task

Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, said district leaders with schools under the microscope have a difficult task in front of them.

“It’s a real balancing act for a strong leader,” he said. “Clearly, a strong leader is not going to put up with any shenanigans.”

“But there’s a real human element at play, too,” he said.

Hall is looking to groups such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the General Electric Foundation for help. Both have been ardent supporters of the system, donating tens of millions of dollars to improve teaching and students’ likelihood of graduating.

John Rice, a GE vice chairman, said in an e-mail Friday the company is concerned about the state’s report and is offering whatever assistance is needed. Hall wants to find answers and take the appropriate actions, he said, adding GE remains “100 percent” committed to her and the work her team is doing.

“We will be doing a tremendous disservice to the students of APS if we let the prospect of a problem keep us from moving forward,” he wrote.

In a statement, the Gates Foundation said it would be inappropriate to comment on an open investigation, but the foundation backs Hall’s efforts and will continue to support the system. The Metro Atlanta Chamber also offered support.

Impressive scores by disadvantaged students have also brought a steady stream of education dignitaries, such as state Superintendent Kathy Cox, and thousands of dollars in awards through the doors of some schools under investigation.

At the schools with the most flagged classrooms last week, parents expressed concern and, in some cases, disbelief.

At Peyton Forest Elementary, where 86 percent of classrooms face scrutiny, parent Phillippia Harris said an engaged principal and teachers have helped her daughter in kindergarten. Harris, a singer, couldn’t believe that the teachers who work so diligently could be under suspicion.

“It’s concerning,” she said. “If the teachers don’t want to teach, they shouldn’t be in the schools. I don’t see that here. I pray there isn’t a problem.”

At F.L. Stanton Elementary, where 83 percent of classrooms are in question, parent Lashova Petty said she planned to come back to the school later that day to find out what was happening. “That is depriving these kids of learning if you’re going to cheat for them,” she said.

Fewer schools were flagged in wealthy suburban districts — a fact that touched a nerve with some parents.

“Why can’t anyone believe children can do well in a black community without extra help?” said Ora Cooks, a retired educator whose grandson attends Gideons Elementary. Scores in 88 percent of its classrooms will be investigated.

Chairwoman LaChandra Butler Burks said the Atlanta school board wants parents to continue to have faith in the district, which will take appropriate action. Asked whether she has lost confidence in Hall, she said, “No! I say that with an exclamation point. I can’t think of any person who has more integrity and commitment.”

Hall said it’s too soon to say what the state’s findings mean for her legacy. She pointed to rising scores on another standardized test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, as confirming the district’s success. While the state’s scores have risen, too, she said Atlanta’s increase has been “more dramatic.”

“That has shown a consistent pattern of growth from the time we began taking the test,” she said.

Behind the story

A dozen Atlanta schools came under state scrutiny after the AJC spent months reporting suspicious tesst scores, including extraordinary gains or drops in scores.

For some of the schools, the odds of making such gains were worse than 1 in a billion.

After and AJC story questioning some schools' gains on CRCT retests, the state investigated and sanctioned educators in four schools. One DeKalb principal pleaded guilty to a felony charge.

Staff writers Andria Simmons, April Hunt, Laura Diamond, Gracie Bonds Staples and Nancy Badertscher contributed to this article.