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Investigator fires back at APS report

10:55 AM, Jul 22, 2011   |    comments
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ATLANTA -- An attorney is firing back at claims her investigation into cheating at one Atlanta school was "watered down" and changed over and over to meet the demands of top district brass.

Two years before the state report on cheating in Atlanta schools came out, Penn Payne was hired by Atlanta Public Schools to investigate Deerwood Academy for testing irregularities.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Atlanta Public Schools CRCT Investigation
RELATED: Read the Complete Report from the Governor's Special Investigators

The question now is was her report doctored and by whom?

An erasure analysis found a high number of wrong-to-right changes on the school's CRCT exams -- nearly one in every two classrooms.

Payne was hired to investigate a retest at Deerwood performed in the summer of 2008. She wrote in her report to the district that she could not prove "anyone altered answers or tampered with the answer sheets" beyond statistical evidence. In some instances, she found that some teachers were sloppy or negligent, but "did not have motivation to cheat on tests".

State investigators came to a much different conclusion in their sweeping review of Atlanta schools.

"APS had her make many changes to her report, which placed the district in a more favorable light," the report reads.

Payne responded saying, "my findings and conclusions did not change in any material way during the entire time that I was writing the report."

In a statement to 11Alive News, Payne wrote, "I ran into the same wall that the Special Investigators described -- educators lied to me. If I had had the legal tools that they had - the threat of criminal indictments and the promise of immunity from prosecution for providing information - in all likelihood, I would have been able to force witnesses to give honest answers and would have identified who cheated at Deerwood."

The Paper Trail

The district hired Payne to conduct an independent and external investigation into a high number of wrong-to-right erasures on Deerwood Academy's 2008 summer retest.

A year later, nearly 48 percent of Deerwood Academy's CRCT classrooms were flagged. A year after that, with state monitors in place, that number dropped to 8.6 percent.

On July 2, 2009, investigators say Payne met with Deputy Superintendent Kathy Augustine, Director of OIR (Office of Internal Resolution) Colinda Howard and Director of RPA (Office of Research Planning and Accountability) Lester McKee. The administrators reportedly presented Payne with a draft letter destined for Governor's Office of Student Achievement Executive Director Kathleen Mathers.

According to the state's report, the document "falsely claimed that Payne's investigation had been completed, and that no evidence of cheating had been found." The report says Payne immediately told the administrators it was not true and that she was still conducting key interviews. She offered to email an update later that night.

Four days later Beverly Hall signed and sent out the letter unchanged without Payne's knowledge.

Payne, the state's report alleges, submitted her final report July 15, but Colinda Howard requested "specific revisions." Payne, the state says, resubmitted her report with the changes made. The state says this happened at least three more times before a final report was accepted more than a month later on August 20.

Payne argued in a statement to 11Alive News, "It does not make sense that I would be firm and straightforward about that inaccurate information and then only shortly afterward give in to pressure to water down the Deerwood report."

An informant working in the OIR told state investigators that the district's General Counsel Veleter Mazyck spent a weekend working on the report until it was "watered down."

State investigators wrote they received a number of editions of Payne's reports, but many versions were missing. They concluded Millicent Few "illegally ordered all other versions from Payne to be destroyed."

Payne has acknowledged Colinda Howard asked her to do "additional investigation," but has said "none of these questions was per se either favorable or unfavorable to APS." She said the final August 20 report includes many of those facts, "half of which were indicators of cheating." She further denies any knowledge of destroying documents.

Even before the state's report was released, Payne disputed allegations in the media that Dr. Hall herself had played a part in doctoring her evaluation.

In a statement to 11Alive News in January 2011, she wrote "Dr. Hall has not had any input into the substantive findings in, or production of, my reports."

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