Perdue: Atlanta cheating probe was stonewalled

In a meeting with AJC editors and reporters, Gov. Sonny Perdue wondered whether constraints were imposed on the company that examined possible cheating in Atlanta schools.

Q: When you made your announcement Wednesday, you mentioned that most of the employees referred by Atlanta Public Schools to the state still needed more investigation. [The district referred 108 educators identified by its investigation to the state teacher licensing agency.] What did you mean?

A: One of the more troubling aspects of this situation — a local school system has to refer an educator to the Professional Standards Commission. They have to state what the allegation is, why they are referring them. [The PSC] has to do with the certification of teachers. They are not the personnel managers. They deal with the certification of whether people are qualified and ethically competent to continue to be an educator.

One of the things that troubled me, [of the 108 cases referred by the Atlanta district last week,] eight qualify under the statute for investigation. This is somewhat skepticism on my part, but I think it does need investigation, what happened between Atlanta public schools and their referrals.

Q: What did you think about the Caveon analysis? [Caveon Test Security was hired to examine 58 Atlanta schools identified by the state as requiring investigation.]

A: I have not seen the Caveon report. I asked the Blue Ribbon Commission for it June 9th. I did not receive it. I questioned early on — it was very clear they were focusing on 12 schools. They were using an analysis that the 58 schools were the whole universe, not taking into account that these were already statistically determined outliers. They triaged here ... with an intention to confine and constrain the damage along the way.

Caveon is a company that deals and works for school systems all over the country. These school systems are their clients. It’s a very bright guy who does it, they’re very smart, but based on what you all have written and what I have seen, I wonder if they were given instructions and directions of how to constrain this investigation rather than explore it.

Q: It sounds like you think it was damage control?

A: When people said, we don't have to talk to you, the investigator says OK, we'll just go on somewhere else. If I'm in charge, then I say, look, you have a choice. We're going to get to the bottom of this one way or another. You better be telling your side of the story. This is not yet a criminal investigation. There are no Fifth Amendment rights at this point. But the actual facilitation of lawyering-up and stonewalling does not seem to have been, to me, discouraged at all.

Q: Do you think the Blue Ribbon Commission [named by the Atlanta district to investigate the 58 schools] was independent enough?

A: That's probably not for us to speculate about. I expressed my concerns about the Caveon work. I would assume these are honorable people trying to do the right thing.

Q: How long do you think the state investigation will take?

A: We're going to pursue it vigorously and as quickly as possible. I don't know how far and wide and deep this river gets. But we will go where we need to go and do what we need to do. I would love to have it wrapped up on my term, but I've already reached out to both attorney general candidates, keeping them abreast. It may fall to their lot to continue to pursue once we complete our investigation.

I would love to tell you it could be done in 45 days but I don’t know. This is extensive. I think it would be unwise to put a time-certain on that. I would hope both school systems would like to remove these clouds as quickly as possible. [The state investigation will also look at Dougherty County schools.] To some degree, it depends on the proactive cooperation of the districts and their instructions to their employees. I believe the school systems have every right and every authority to direct their employees to cooperate and trust that they will.

Q: Is the state investigation limited to the CRCT issue only?

A: There are other issues having to do with graduation numbers as well as NAEP [National Assessment of Education Progress] score gains. We're going to focus over the issue we began with, the erasure analysis. If it leads to other places, we will not turn away from that. Two things ought to happen: The people who did nothing wrong need to be totally cleared. That includes the vast, vast, vast majority of educators across the state. It's just like when one of my colleagues gets into ethical trouble, it impugns everyone. Education in general becomes impugned when you have these kinds of things going on. The vast majority of educators are for this, they don't condone it.

The other thing is, not knowing exactly what happened, those who altered tests, facilitated the altering of tests, condoned the altering of tests or conspired to alter tests need to have due process, and I do not believe they need to continue in education. As we move forward in society, the integrity of testing is going to become increasingly important. Education is not a game. It is affecting individual lives. Now is the time to send that message. We will have accountability going forward. The rules of the game, the integrity of this must be absolutely above reproach.

Q: Atlanta public schools is arguably a more stable place now than it was 10 years ago, and one of the concerns is that this could cause it to destabilize and lose those gains.

A: I think Atlanta Public Schools is better than it was 10 years ago. I don't think there's any question about that. I think, again, while I want all of our children to look good, the way to look good is to be good and do good and do well.

Let me tell you what happens when a student whose grades are altered of no fault of their own is given an ‘exceeds expectations’ on the CRCT, whereas if they have not been altered, they would have not met standards. That student is cheated and robbed of the help they should have gotten to progress. That is like cancer; it does not get better in and of itself when that student goes from the third grade, to the fourth grade, to the fifth grade, to the sixth grade. Those are the students you see lining up at Crim [High School] in the ninth grade and then, the next time we see them is in the Department of Juvenile Justice and in our corrections system. That’s what happens.

This isn’t about systems looking good and destabilizing systems. This is about being honest with our students and our parents and ourselves about education. I believe these students can learn. I think they have learned more and better. But the fact is we are doing them an injustice when we move them along and give them grades greater than they may have had.

Q: There are those in Atlanta looking at this askance: Why is the governor that concerned?

A: This was every test taker in the state [included in the state's initial erasure analysis]. The statistics led us [to Atlanta].

Q: Have you talked to Dr. Hall much over this investigation?

A: I have not had many conversations with Dr. Hall. I've encouraged her cooperation. It's been cordial. It has not been in-depth. She asked to see me the morning the report was going to be issued. I said my schedule was packed but I would be happy to meet with her once we learned what the report said. I have not heard back.