Investigation of testing erasures at Atlanta schools to intensify

An investigation of 58 Atlanta schools for possible cheating on state tests will intensify starting this week, as school officials begin to sit for interviews to reconstruct what happened during last year's testing season.

Investigators, having spent weeks compiling data about the schools, have begun to comb through it. And they won't stop with what's in front of them. Their plans includes retrieving e-mails and other online communications from system servers to see if any staff member had concerns or knew about testing irregularities.

"We're at the advanced-planning-at-the-brink-of-action phase," said John Fremer, president of investigative firm Caveon Test Security. Fremer and Charles Riepenhoff, from the auditing company KPMG, gave that update Wednesday to a panel overseeing the investigation. Both they and panel members acknowledged it is going to be an intensive next few weeks for Atlanta officials.

Fremer said investigators, based on early indicators, will concentrate more on some schools than others but did not name individual schools. He said that roughly a third of the schools under investigation have been grouped into a category that will receive the highest scrutiny because of a combination of factors, including a large number of erasures on student answer sheets and extraordinary student gains in test scores.

According to a state report released in February, 191 Georgia schools required investigation because they showed unusual patterns of erasures on the state's Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests last spring. The tests are taken by students in first through eighth grade to help determine whether schools meet federal benchmarks.

Atlanta had the most schools flagged in any state system, more than two-thirds of its public elementary and middle schools. Atlanta school board members sought outside help. That process is being overseen by the 15-member panel of city business and community leaders.

The panel hired Caveon Test Security and KPMG. Since mid-March, investigators have collected data and reviewed Atlanta's existing test security measures. Fremer on Wednesday issued a formal report about that work, summing up previous informal reports to the panel that praised Atlanta for adhering to state and district exam protocol but also recommended ways to improve. A final report about the investigation is due to the state on May 14.