Atlanta works to root out cheating educators

ATLANTA (AP) — Just a month before classes start, Atlanta schools officials are trying to determine how many of the 178 teachers and principals accused of cheating are still on the job following a scathing state investigation that found some educators held “changing parties” to correct answers.

The yearlong probe revealed the nation’s largest cheating scandal yet on standardized tests, with nearly half of the city’s 100 schools involved, and highlighted the immense pressure put on educators to produce better scores. Criminal charges are likely for some of the 82 educators who confessed and the rest who were implicated by colleagues.

Officials have pledged that the educators still working in the district will be removed from their jobs, but that process could take days as staffers trudge through the 800-page report the state made public Tuesday evening.

“We’re used to having to change some staff during the summer,” district spokesman Keith Bromery said. “In an organization this big and as transient, you do have a turnover. We’re perfectly capable of addressing that.”

The accused are just a fraction of the district’s 6,000 employees, half of which are teachers.

All educators in the report also will be referred to the state Professional Standards Commission, which licenses Georgia teachers, to see whether they should have their certification suspended or revoked. Criminal charges could range from tampering with state documents to lying to investigators.

Educators who admitted to helping students with tests or changing the answers once exams were handed in said they were pressured by administrators to improve test scores, and they would have done anything to meet the unreasonable expectations.

Test scores were linked to evaluations at some schools, and some teachers were promised bonuses if they improved student performance. One principal told teachers that “Walmart is hiring” and “the door swings both ways.”

Another teacher told investigators that the Atlanta school district is “run like the mob.” Another said her school was ruled by fear.

“Teachers are afraid of losing their jobs and teachers compel themselves to do whatever they need to do to make sure that they don’t lose their jobs because their students meet or don’t exceed on the CRCT,” the teacher told investigators. “Everybody was in fear. It is not that the teachers are bad people and want to do it. It is that they are scared.”

The investigators found the cheating dated as far back as 2001 but became rampant beginning in 2005 as then-Superintendent Beverly Hall placed more emphasis on test scores. She quickly drew national attention for improving a district where roughly three-fourths of students live at or below the poverty line, even winning the national Superintendent of the Year award in 2009 for the rising test scores.

Hall either knew or should have known that cheating was widespread, they investigators said, thought her attorney has denied all allegations against her. Hall retired less than a week ago.

“Not one of the 82 persons who allegedly confessed to cheating told the investigators that Dr. Hall at any time instructed, encouraged or condoned cheating,” Hall’s attorney, Richard Deane, wrote in a statement.

The testing problems first came to light after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that some scores were statistically improbable. The state launched audits of test results after the newspaper published its analysis of the scores.

The conclusion of the state’s investigation has parents worried about the coming school year.

Stacey Whitney’s son, now 14, spent seventh and eighth grade at Parks Middle School, where 12 teachers and the principal were singled out for cheating. She was surprised that her son never seemed to have homework, but was reassured because his test scores seemed high.

“Now he’s heading into high school and he may not be prepared at all,” she said.

She was also concerned he will be associated with one of the “cheating schools.”

“I just feel terrible for the students that are still there,” she said.

A number of other large urban school districts have been caught up in cheating scandals in the last several years, including Baltimore, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston and Dallas, said Bob Schaeffer with the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. But testing experts say this is the largest test cheating scandal in the country in terms of scope and the number of confessions.

In Baltimore, CEO Andris Alonso announced last month that there had been testing altering at two schools. A Philadelphia Inquirer investigation revealed in May that teachers at a middle school there likely cheated to produce impressive — and sometimes impossible — test results.

In Washington, D.C., test scores in three classrooms were tossed out in May after a probe revealed cheating by educators.

Schaeffer said he began tracking cheating in the early 1990s, when he’d see two or three stories a year about educators breaking the rules on tests.

“Now we’re seeing a couple or three a week in big, big places,” he said. “The pressure is so high to boost test scores by any means possible that more and more educators break and cross the ethical line.”

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Associated Press writer Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this report.

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