State probe reveals cheating on CRCT

Four elementary schools —- including three in metro Atlanta —- are being investigated over changed answers on the high-stakes CRCT.

Preliminary audit results by the Governor's Office of Student Achievement reveal that someone at the schools deliberately changed students' answers last summer on fifth-grade standardized math retests.

One principal resigned Thursday in the fallout. James Berry, principal of DeKalb County's Atherton Elementary School, quit after being confronted with the findings.

Atherton Assistant Principal Doretha Alexander was given a new assignment pending further investigation, said Robert Moseley, DeKalb chief deputy superintendent.

No student or teacher "has been implicated in this mess," Moseley said. "It's the students who were cheated by the administrators."

The state's findings focused on four schools —- Atherton, Parklane Elementary in Fulton County, Deerwood Academy in Atlanta and Burroughs-Molette Elementary in Glynn County.

The Governor's Office of Student Achievement is recommending that tests taken by more than 100 fifth-graders at the four schools be thrown out as suspect. However, retesting is not being recommended.

According to state officials, someone deliberately erased a high percentage of wrong answers on student answer sheets at the four schools and filled in the correct ones, causing passing rates on the state's Criterion-Referenced Competency Test to spike.

Federal law demands that schools continually improve students' learning or face sanctions. State standardized tests such as the CRCT are used every year to measure that progress, upping the ante as schools try to prove their worth.

Kathleen Mathers, executive director of the Governor's Office of Student Achievement, said officials in all four school systems have been kept abreast of the state's investigation and have been given until the July meeting of the state Board of Education to officially respond to the investigation's findings.

The state investigation, presented to state school board members Wednesday, followed an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in December about improbably steep gains at some schools on tests taken first in spring and then in summer.

The AJC's analysis showed a handful of schools' retest increases were statistically unusual to a high degree. One researcher who reviewed the newspaper's findings said Atherton's gains were so statistically unlikely that they were akin to a snowstorm in July —- in Atlanta.

At Atherton, half of the DeKalb school's fifth-graders failed a yearly state test in the spring. When the 32 students took retests, not only did every one of them pass —- 26 scored at the highest level.

Mathers, discussing the state's findings at the four schools, said in some cases, as many as 46 answers on the 70-question test were found to have been erased, when about two is typical. Many, but not all, of the erased answers were replaced with the correct response, she said.

"We know somebody changed the answers," Mathers said. "We are not responsible for identifying who."

The CRCT, on a personal level, is a big milestone because fifth-graders who fail the math and reading tests risk being held back. On an institutional level, a certain percentage of all students must pass those standardized tests to help a school qualify for federal "adequate yearly progress" standards, also known as AYP.

In Fulton County, officials plan to hire an independent auditor to review the state's investigation and the test results, said Susan Hale, school system spokeswoman.

"Right now, we're standing behind the students and teachers and their success," Hale said.

Atlanta Public Schools spokesman Joe Manguno said the system started an investigation Thursday and would take no disciplinary action until it concluded what happened.

Manguno in a statement said officials have "evidence that someone at Deerwood Academy changed some wrong answers to correct answers on 11 students' tests."

Affected students and their parents were being notified and would receive academic help, Manguno said.

Mathers said the tests were sent to the University of Georgia for analysis.

She said, without that study, it is unlikely that officials would have been able to verify that answers had been erased and replaced.

"Erasing kids' answers is generally done so secretly," Mathers said. "So superintendents could ask all the questions in the world, and they probably would not have turned up anything."

> Schools that fail to achieve testing goals face penalties. A12