ATLANTA -- A state investigation into allegations of cheating by Atlanta Public Schools officials on standardized tests finds nearly 80 percent of schools examined cheated on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT).
COMPLETE COVERAGE: Atlanta Public Schools CRCT Cheating Investigation
"We found cheating in 44 of the 56 schools," Gov. Nathan Deal said as he read from the CRCT report summary during a news conference at the State Capitol Tuesday.
The report, obtained by The Associated Press and delivered to 11Alive News, details the findings of the state's investigation.
"A culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence infected this school system, and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct," the report's authors wrote. "From the onset of this investigation, we were confronted by a pattern of interference by top APS leadership in our attempts to gather evidence. These actions delayed the completion of this inquiry and hindered the truth-seeking process."
READ THE FULL REPORT
"There were 38 principals found to be responsible for or directly involved in cheating," Deal said. In all, he said investigators found 178 teachers and principals took part in cheating. Among them, 82 confessed to misconduct and 6 principals refused to participate in the investigation by pleading the 5th Amendment, according to the report.
APS Chair Brenda Muhammad called the findings "devastating" after a briefing Tuesday. "Many of our students have been cheated, and that, I think, is the most sinful thing that we can do or we could do to our children."
"Those children are out there somewhere and we need to find those children," Muhammad told 11Alive News Wednesday morning. "We need to do what we can to fix this problem and we need to make sure that it never ever happens again. And for those who are responsible, we need to be sure they are never ever in front of children again."
The state report goes on to name former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall, who retired last month. "The APS General Counsel told us that one of her main duties was to provide Superintendent Hall with 'deniability.' Her aim was to insulate Dr. Hall from the burden of responsibility for making difficult decisions."
The report alleges that teachers were often pressured into meeting "targets" of achievement. Teachers interviewed during the investigation said targets were often set at unreasonable levels. Failure to meet those targets resulted in professional humiliation and job termination.
"Fear of termination and public ridicule in faculty and principals meetings drove numerous educators to cross ethical lines," the report said. "Further, because targets rose annually, teachers found it increasingly difficult to achieve them."
"Dr. Hall and her senior cabinet accepted accolades when those below them performed well, but they wanted none of the burdens of failure," the report said.
"Dr. Hall stood to financially gain based on whether the district met targets," the report said. "Over the years, she received tens of thousands of dollars based on the reported CRCT results."
While not naming Hall, APS Interim Superintendent Erroll Davis said at a Tuesday, "I believe very strongly that people are responsible for the organizations that they're privileged to lead, and if it happens on your watch, you're responsible."
"I agree with Mr. Davis wholeheartedly and the board agrees with him wholeheartedly," Muhammad said Wednesday. "I mean, I have a job and whatever happens as the director of my program, I'm responsible regardless of who works for me."
Hall released a statement late Tuesday afternoon denying that she or her staff knew or "should have known" there was widespread cheating.
Hall's statement read as follows:
Having left the Atlanta Public Schools in the very capable hands of Interim Superintendent Erroll Davis, Dr. Beverly Hall has not been given an opportunity to review the Investigators' report to Governor Deal on alleged cheating on the 2009 CRCT. Nor has she been briefed on the contents of the report. Whatever the report may say, Dr. Hall steadfastly denies that she, her staff, or the vast majority of APS teaching and administrative professionals knew or should have known of any allegedly widespread cheating on APS CRCTs in 2009 or any other year. She further denies any other allegations of knowing and deliberate wrongdoing on her part or on the part of her senior staff, whether during the course of the Investigation or before the Investigation began.
Cheating on the CRCT can never be condoned. But whatever cheating may have occurred in the past, test scores in 2010 and 2011 show that APS rests on a firm educational foundation. Tests in those years were conducted under the most stringent security protocols, with State monitors employed in many schools. To be sure, some grades showed declines in 2010. But others showed advances. Systemwide, scores followed the same upward trend that began in the early 2000s. Scores on this year's CRCT confirmed that trend, with gains over 2010 results in 20 of the 30 grade and subject areas tested. APS students continue to narrow the gap with State averages.
Dr. Hall wishes Interim Superintendent Davis all success in transitioning APS to its next phase. Great progress has been made since 1999. With continued hard work and dedication, even greater progress can be made in the future.
Like the rest of the public, Dr. Hall awaits the disclosure of the report.
An outline of the report released by Gov. Deal's office noted:
- Cheating occurred as early as 2001
- Cheating was caused by a number of factors but primarily by the pressure to meet targets in the data-driven environment
- A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation existed in APS, which created a conspiracy of silence and deniability with respect to standardized test misconduct
- There were clear and significant warnings of cheating on CRCT as early as December 2005/January 2006, but they were ignored
- The statistics are overwhelming and allow for no conclusion other than widespread cheating in APS
"Dr. Hall and her top staff created a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation, which was usually enforced on principals and teachers by some of the SRT executive directors," the report said. "Many witnesses said that after reporting cheating, or some other misconduct, they became the subject of an investigation and were disciplined."
Hall said she "steadfastly denies" that she and her staff, along with the "vast majority of APS teaching and administrative professionals knew or should have known" of widespread cheating during 2009 or any other year.
The CRCT report was compiled by two special prosecutors appointed by former Gov. Sonny Perdue to look into allegations of cheating by Atlanta Public Schools on the 2009 CRCT state exams. The appointments were made after a locally-appointed Blue Ribbon Commission failed to determine what happened.
11Alive News interviewed several APS parents who expressed everything from shock to a glimmer of hope.
"It is very disappointing that so many educators felt that this is what they had to do," said Mary Palmer.
"We know that we have done a disservice to our children for years in Atlanta Public Schools, and they will be the product of this environment of this community as a result of that failure," said Shawnna Hayes-Tavares.
"It's my hope as a parent and a public school advocate that we can use what we find in this report to move forward and to assure that children won't be cheated ever again," added Julie Davis Salisbury.
Early on, Dr. Beverly Hall denied that educators were involved in changing student answer sheets to inflate test scores.
But right before she retired, Hall changed her tune in a video message she e-mailed to employees.
"I expect the investigation to draw some troubling, no alarming, conclusions," Hall said in late May. "It's become clear that a segment of our staff chose to violate the trust that was placed in them. Let me be clear, there is simply no excuse for unethical behavior and no room in this district for unethical conduct."
"Most educators in this state and most educators in the Atlanta Public Schools are committed, ethical professionals with a passion for educating students," Deal stressed Tuesday. "We owe them a debt of gratitude for their service."
"However, when educators fail to uphold the public trust and students are harmed in the process, there will be consequences," Deal added. "The state has a duty to ensure that students' test results reflect real learning. We cannot allow adult behavior to compromise the very tools which we use statewide to gauge a child's proficiency."
Deal said criminal charges against educators are possible. He was sending the full report to district attorneys in Fulton, DeKalb and Douglas Counties.
He said the Georgia Professional Standards Commission will also review the findings to determine if there are any violations that could jeopardize teacher certifications.
Tuesday afternoon, the Georgia Association of Educators released a statement Wednesday afternoon regarding the investigation:
Just as all who hold the profession of teaching in utmost regard and the values of ensuring our children receive the best education possible, the Georgia Association of Educators is very troubled about the findings of the APS Cheating Investigation. Very simply, cheating in our classrooms should not and cannot be condoned.
Ninety-nine percent of our professionals stay true to the tenets of teaching because of their professional ethics and what they hold in their hands -- our children's futures. Their efforts should not be tainted by the few who, when due process has run its course, are found to have skirted those principles and values, and have denied their students a true and complete valuation of what they have accomplished. We are confident that the investigation's findings will be fair and that punishment will be sensitive to the environment of intimidation that was said to have existed. We wholeheartedly agree with State Superintendent John Barge when he says that "it is important to remember that the vast majority of the educators in Georgia are ethically sound and work diligently with the best interests of their students in mind."
The APS Investigation is an extreme and unfortunate example of why GAE has steadily pushed for legislation that protects whistleblowers and for due process rights for educators that is often misconstrued as tenure.