Gov. Perdue: APS cheating 'had to be conspiratorial'

Beverly Hall didn’t seem particularly interested in looking into alarmingly high numbers of erasures on state test answer sheets at Atlanta schools, former Gov. Sonny Perdue testified Monday in the test-cheating trial.

“There was a growing defensiveness in her voice,” Perdue testified, recalling a 2010 phone conversation with the former Atlanta school superintendent. “I got the feeling that she just wanted this to go away.”

Before the cheating scandal erupted, Perdue said, he was one of Hall’s biggest supporters because of the school system’s gains. He described their relationship as “amicable, friendly, cooperative.”

Out of courtesy, Perdue said, he had personally telephoned Hall about the results of a statewide analysis of the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests that found highly suspicious wrong-to-right erasure rates at 58 Atlanta schools.

When Perdue said he told Hall that Atlanta Public Schools needed to conduct its own investigation, Hall initially shared his sentiments that the matter should be taken very seriously. But during the course of the conversation, Hall’s tone changed, the former governor said.

Perdue’s testimony against Hall wasn’t challenged because Hall is not now on trial. She was among those indicted by a Fulton County grand jury and accused of being part of a racketeering conspiracy to inflate test scores. Hall has strongly denied the charges. She is unable to stand trial at this time because she is suffering from Stage IV breast cancer.

One of her lawyers, David Bailey, sat in court Monday taking notes of Perdue’s testimony.

Perdue testified the erasure analysis led him to conclude there had been a collaborative effort among educators to change test scores. “It had to be conspiratorial,” he said.

Perdue said when he called for an investigation, Atlanta civic leaders pressured him to drop the issue so as not to mar Atlanta’s “brand.” But Perdue said he would not back down because of the children who had been cheated out of their educations.

“It was not the right thing to do,” Perdue said. “It was not the moral thing to do.”

Perdue’s testimony walked jurors through the steps the state took to investigate cheating after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported on suspected cheating on the 2008 summer CRCT at Deerwood Academy.

Perdue displayed little of the emotion he showed in an earlier trial of former regional supervisor Tamara Cotman. In that 2013 trial, Cotman was acquitted of a charge that alleged she had influenced a witness.

Perdue said ensuring state test results’ integrity was “critical.” After a state analysis found a large number of wrong-to-right answer changes at Deerwood, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement had an erasure analysis done on the 2009 CRCTs. Two districts had a significant number of schools with higher numbers of changes: Atlanta Public Schools and Dougherty County schools.

“The data revealed that something, I feel, systemic had happened,” Perdue said.

Perdue said he asked Hall and the Dougherty County superintendent to investigate and determine if there were any testing violations. Similar requests were made of other districts.

“We didn’t want a whitewash,” Perdue said. “We believed that we had presented some pretty serious data to the school system and felt that they would want to pursue just as we did about how and what happened and why.”

The report of an APS Blue Ribbon Commission formed to investigate the gains seemed to be a “cover up,” Perdue said.

Personal contacts and groups urged him to back off APS, Perdue said, “to just go into the sunset and enjoy these last few months of your administration and don’t rock the boat.”

But Perdue appointed special investigators to find out what happened and ordered the GBI to assist. The 2011 state report resulting from that investigation implicated nearly 200 APS employees in the cheating scandal.

Testimony later Monday from GBI director Vernon Keenan and former special investigator Bob Wilson made clear the scope of the investigation.

GBI agents conducted nearly 1,800 interviews and reviewed countless documents, Keenan testified. Initially, 60 of the agency’s approximately 250 agents worked on the case.

Wilson, a former DeKalb County district attorney, testified that the wrong-to-right erasure analysis of the 2009 CRCT was the “cornerstone” of the state’s investigation. Classrooms were flagged based on the number of standard deviations from the norm, he said.

For example, three standard deviations meant there was a one in 370 chance that wrong-to-right erasures on the tests occurred randomly, without some kind of outside intervention, Wilson testified. Seven standard deviations meant there was a one in 390,600,000,000 chance, he said.

Prosecutor Clint Rucker later presented the erasure analysis of Dunbar Elementary classrooms involving former teachers Pamela Cleveland, Shani Robinson and Diane Buckner-Webb, three of the 12 defendants in the case. The wrong-to-right erasures on reading, language arts and math tests in each of these teachers’ classes ranged from 9 to 17 standard deviations.

“That is what we refer to as a triple whammy,” Wilson said.

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