Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal – An Overview in Lieu of the 400+ Pages of Special Investigators’ Report

Main Question
In light of the Governor’s Special Investigators’ Report (“Report”) on alleged cheating in Georgia school districts, what issues need to be addressed in Atlanta Public School System (APS) to overcome systemic failures?
Short Answer
The Governor’s Special Investigators’ Report details organized and systemic misconduct on the part of Atlanta Public School System officers, administrators, staff, principals, teachers, and educators.  The Report found mismanagement, poor oversight, and a lack of ethical behavior as it relates to state testing on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (“CRCTs”).  It identifies failures in leadership at both the district and school levels and links cheating outcomes to dysfunctions in APS organizational culture. 

I.                   Background
a.       Why was the Report Written?
b.      Who Authored the Report?
c.       How was the Report Compiled?
II.                Content
a.       What are the Report’s Main Findings?
b.      How Does the Report Detail These Findings?
c.       Does the Report Name Educators?
III.             Conclusions and Policy Recommendations
a.       Where Does Responsibility Lie?
b.      What Issues Need to be Addressed to Overcome Systemic Failures?
c.       What Does the Report Mean for the Truancy Intervention Project?

I.                   Background
a.      Why was the Report Written?

This Report was written after several other probes into student performances on state standardized test scores.  It is a culmination of investigations began by Governor Nathan Deal’s predecessor, Governor Sonny Perdue.  On August 25, 2010, Governor Perdue requested that a special investigative team review the findings of “alleged test tampering [] and related matters” because he had been concerned about initial reports from the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (“CRCT”).[i]  The initial report, referred to as the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (“GOSA”) erasure analysis, revealed abnormalities in student performance.[ii]  The erasure analysis was performed by CTB McGraw-Hill, who used empirical methods to examine test answers that were changed from incorrect responses to correct responses.[iii]  Where an unusually high number of responses were changed, the school was flagged and placed on a state watch list.  In February 2010, the GOSA erasure analysis revealed that “almost half of the schools flagged for being greater than three standard deviations outside of the norm in [Georgia] were from the Atlanta Public School System.”[iv]  In fact, “[t]he percentage of flagged classes in APS far exceeded any other district in Georgia.”[v]  It concluded that “cheating is the only plausible explanation for the abnormally high standard deviations shown in the erasure analysis.”[vi] 
Soon after the erasure analysis on March 8, 2010, the Atlanta Board of Education established the Blue Ribbon Commission to oversee additional investigations in the school district.[vii]  This Commission, funded by the Atlanta Education Fund, hired Caveon Test Security and KPMG accounting firm to conduct and audit the investigation.[viii]  Caveon Test Security affirmed the “virtually impossible” results of the same schools that were reported as the top offenders in the GOSA erasure analysis.[ix]  However, the Commission concluded that “there was no evidence of centrally-coordinated cheating” in APS.[x]
Hence, Governor Nathan Deal’s special investigators began by reviewing the results of the initial erasure analysis to produce this recent Report.  The Report finds that “the GOSA erasure analysis is accurate, reproducible, and reliable.”[xi]  In fact, the initial erasure analysis is deemed to be more conservative because it used computers that recorded lightly marked Scantron answers as not having been changed, which gave student responses “the benefit of the doubt.”[xii]  In the recent Report, erasures were manually counted.[xiii]  After reviewing the first erasure analysis, the governor’s special investigators compared it with a second erasure analysis commissioned by GOSA one year later.  Because this second analysis “revealed a dramatic drop in [ ] erasures,” the special investigative team narrowed their focus on uncovering what happened during 2008-2009 school year when the 2009 CRCTs were administered.[xiv]  The Report was hand delivered to Governor Nathan Deal on June 30, 2011.  It was released to the public on July 5, 2011.

b.      Who Authored the Report?

The special investigators team was headed by former Georgia Attorney General Michael J. Bowers, former DeKalb County District Attorney Robert E. Wilson, and investigator Richard L. Hyde.[xv]  Other members of the investigation included the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia Information Sharing Analysis Center, Office of State Inspector General, District Attorney of the Atlanta Judicial Circuit, Solicitor-General of DeKalb County, and the Georgia State Patrol.[xvi]  The law firms of Balch and Bingham, LLP and Wilson, Morton and Downs, LLC were retained in the matter.[xvii] 

c.       How was the Report Compiled?

The Report released to the public contained approximately 413 pages of information from the estimated 800 page Report that was delivered to the Governor’s office.[xviii]  The Governor’s special investigative team conducted over 2,100 interviews and reviewed over 800,000 documents.[xix]

II.                Content
a.      What are the Report’s Main Findings?

The Report primarily focuses on allegations of cheating in APS.  It confirms that in 44 of the 56 schools examined by the special investigative team, cheating occurred on the 2009 CRCTs.  The Report also includes findings of “improper conduct:  several open record act violations; instances of false statements; and instances of document destruction.”[xx]  It explicitly states that “organized and systemic misconduct” occurred within APS dating to school years as early as 2001.[xxi]  The offenses are many, but district-level offenses include the following:
1.      Failures in leadership in the “ethical administration” of the 2009 CRCT and prior CRCTs (perhaps as early as 2006);[xxii]
2.      District leadership refusals to act where principals were found to cheat;[xxiii]
3.      Altering reports of elementary school cheating and ultimately destroying them;[xxiv]
4.      Creating public acclaim for achievements obtained through cheating;[xxv]
5.      Failures in leadership by accepting accolades but refusing to share in any burdens of failure;[xxvi]
6.      Surrounding Superintendent Hall with a veil of deniability;[xxvii]
7.      Creating a culture of fear that kept teachers from speaking up about improper behaviors;[xxviii]
8.      Establishing a conspiracy or code of silence that precluded investigators’ “truth-seeking process”; [xxix]
9.      Maintaining a dysfunctional organization culture such that employees had low confidence that reports of improper activity would be handled by APS’s Office of Internal Resolution;[xxx]
10.  Interference on the part of top APS leadership that delayed the completion of the special investigators’ attempts to gather evidence; [xxxi]
11.  Using incrementally rigorous and “unrealistic” standards called “targets,” which placed “a higher burden . . . upon the lower-performing school”;[xxxii]
12.  Failing to “balance the data-driven environment . . . with equal focus on the importance of integrity in achieving these goals.”[xxxiii]
13.  Substituting progress of “the school, as a whole, increasing its overall CRCT scores” for individual student progress — with adults becoming more important than children;[xxxiv]
14.  Failing to notice “early warnings” or flag dramatic score gains across schools and grade levels, before state-level inquiries;[xxxv]
15.  Intertwining cheating with the culture of APS[xxxvi] and disciplining “teachers who conducted themselves ethically [ ] but failed to achieve required results”;[xxxvii]
16.  Omitting complaints and other records from records requests from newspapers;[xxxviii]
17.  Hiring professionals to conduct internal investigations that relied on limited observations, deleting those reports, and not making them available to the public;[xxxix]
Misconduct was also found at the school-level in APS.  Among others, school-level offenses included failing to properly monitor or adequately supervise test security,[xl] recruiting teachers into cheating conspiracies[xli] and ostracizing those who would not comply,[xlii] covertly choreographing misconduct[xliii] so that the school testing coordinator would not discover any, retaliating against teachers who spoke out about misconduct by terminating their contracts or refusing their promotions,[xliv] pressuring teachers with professional development plans that would jeopardize their jobs for los test scores,[xlv] disallowing teachers to give children failing grades,[xlvi] using veteran teachers to change the student grade sheets of new teachers,[xlvii] canceling after-school activities and ordering all teacher to leave by a certain time to enable more time for changing student answers,[xlviii] collecting incentive payments and accepting personal awards amounting to thousands of dollars for the “false test results,”[xlix] changing test answers to be eligible for compensation bonus monies,[l] wearing gloves while changing answers to hide fingerprints,[li] intimidating witnesses by requiring them to meet with a criminal defense attorney,[lii] directing witnesses not to be truthful with investigators,[liii] and testifying under oath to not being aware that any cheating was occurring.[liv]  The Report listed some of what special investigators considered to be the most “outrageous” instances.[lv]
Some of the investigative conclusions of cheating were made because of high numbers of classrooms flagged by the erasure analysis and educators’ refusals to answer questions.[lvi]  At some schools, statistical evidence was too limited to conclude that cheating occurred.[lvii]  Limited evidence precludes further action against certain schools.[lviii]  A few schools were reported to have “no evidence of cheating” and investigators concluded that “no further investigation is needed” for those schools.[lix]

b.      How Does the Report Detail These Findings?
Although the special investigative team began their search heavily dependent on the initial erasure analysis, “[t]he erasure analysis is no longer a mere red flag, [ ] [it] is supported by confessions and other evidence of cheating in 78.6% of the elementary and middle schools we investigated.”[lx]  The Report details its findings in several formats using quantitative and anecdotal data,[lxi] questionnaires,[lxii] narratives and pictures,[lxiii] and language that is direct, comprehensive, and, at times, non-neutral.  For example, the Report incorporates statistical charts, exhibits, and articles from APS magazines.[lxiv]  Most of the direct and non-neutral language is used to describe district-level officers and Dr. Hall with phrases like the following: “[h]er image became more important than reality,” “[i]mage was more important than the truth,”[lxv] “the truth got lost, and so did the children, “[w]e empathize with those educators who felt they were pressured,” and “[t]o make matters worse, the district then . . .”[lxvi]  Some of these remarks and sentiments are reported to have come from the school-level educators and witnesses: “[m]ost teachers, and many principals, described an oppressive environment at APS where the entire focus of the district has become achieving test scores rather than teaching children.”[lxvii]  Other non-neutral language in the Report is used as a final summary of the investigators’ conclusions:
If [Dr. Hall and her cabinet] failed to see the warnings, they were not the leaders they claimed to be.  And if they disregarded them, it was a gross and willful breach of their duty to the children of Atlanta.  As a result, school children were harmed by the failure to honestly measure their academic achievements, depriving them of the educational assistance they needed, and to which they were entitled.[lxviii]

c.       Does the Report Name Educators?

The Report reveals many educators by name, title, and school.  Principally, the Report states that “Superintendent Beverly Hall and her senior staff knew, or should have known, that cheating and other offenses were occurring.”[lxix]  Regarding Dr. Hall, the Report implicates her heavy reliance on data and targets instead of “being a hands-on leader” as contributing to the misconduct.[lxx]  It also noted that the causes of unethical administration of the 2009 CRCT were (1) “Dr. Hall’s insular style,” (2) “[Dr. Hall’s] isolation from the rank-and-file,” and (3) “Dr. Hall and her top managers refus[ing] to take responsibility for anything other than success.”[lxxi]  APS administrators are also named in the Report including Executive Directors of School Reform Teams, the General Counsel for APS, the Chief Human Resource Officer, the Deputy Superintendent for Instruction and Curriculum.[lxxii]
Other educators, particularly those who confessed to being involved in cheating, are named in their respective school sections within Volume II of the report.  Many are not named, as “there were far more educators involved in cheating, and other improper conduct, than we were able to establish sufficiently to identify by name in [the] report.”[lxxiii]  Others were not named because investigators “lack[ed] sufficient evidence to say which people erased and changed [student answer documents].”[lxxiv]  The team identified 138 educators involved in cheating — 38 of which were principals — and obtained 82 confessions.[lxxv]  Under both governors’ directives, “teachers who were honest in their testimony” are not to be criminally prosecuted.[lxxvi]  A few principals, decided not to answer all investigative questions and plead the Fifth Amendment—but this implied their admission for civil law purposes.[lxxvii]
Some individuals are named in the investigator findings for their attempts to report misconduct and unethical behaviors.  These include teachers and district-level staff members like learning technology specialists, fixed assets accountants, attorneys, and interim principals.[lxxviii]

III.             Conclusions and Policy Recommendations
a.      Where Does Responsibility Lie?

As the Report implicates, there are many people, at various levels in the district, who share blame for not acting when misconduct was occurring or was brought to their attention.  Top-level officials, particularly the Superintendent and Deputy Superintendent, have legal duties “not to falsify, misrepresent, omit, or erroneously report information submitted to governmental agencies.”[lxxix]  Additionally, officials cannot destroy or alter public documents.[lxxx]  However, under Georgia law and testing protocol, “the principal bears ultimate responsibility for ensuring how the [CRCT] is administered.”[lxxxi]  

b.      What Issues Need to be Addressed to Overcome Systemic Failures?
The Governor’s Special Investigators’ Report details organized and systemic misconduct on the part of Atlanta Public School System officers, administrators, staff, principals, teachers, and educators.  It identifies failures in leadership at both the district and school levels and links cheating outcomes to dysfunctions in organizational cultures. The Report found mismanagement, poor oversight, and a lack of ethical behavior as it relates to state testing on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. 

[i] Office of the Governor Special Investigators, Special Investigation into CRCT Cheating at APS, at 7, 401 (June 30, 2011) (hereafter “Investigative Report”), http://www.ajc.com/news/volume-1-of-special-1000798.html.  Governor Perdue authorized the Special Investigators to “[f]ind truth with regard to cheating, in any, on the 2009 CRCT within APS; [a]ssist state regulators in sanctioning educators who participated in cheating; [and] [s]ubmit information to prosecuting authorities regarding criminal conduct, if discovered.”  Id. at 7.
[ii] Id.
[iii] Id. at 9-14.
[iv] Id. at 6.  Standard deviations are statistical measurements against the state average.  Id. at 9.  In this context, investigators determined the average number of student answers that were erased and changed from wrong answer to right ones across the state of Georgia and then compared that to numbers in APS.  Id .at 5.  In APS, erased student answers departed from the norm by twenty erasures--sometimes as many as fifty-three erasures.  Id. at 11.  These values were converted into standard deviations.  See id. at 9- 11.  In some cases, classroom scores exceeded five standard deviations—sometimes measuring ten standard deviations.  “At five standard deviations, the probability that the number of erasures occurred without adult intervention, or cheating, is no better than one in a million.  At ten standard deviations the probability is no better than one in a trillion.  This signifies that the deviations from the state mean were, for a number of classrooms, a strong indication of cheating on a broad scale.”  Id. at 107.
[v] Id. at 12.
[vi] Id. at 5 (internal citations omitted).
[vii] Id. at 392.
[viii] Id. at 394-96.
[ix] The Commission concluded that twelve schools were cheating offenders.  Id. at 11-12.
[x] Id. at 395.
[xi] Id. at 12.  Special Investigators took several steps to ensure validity of the erasure analysis, including retaining leading academics on educational testing and statistics, touring the CTB McGraw-Hill facility, watching documents be rescanned, and interviewing statisticians.  Id. at 12-13.
[xii] Id. at 14.
[xiii] Id.
[xiv] Id. at 342.  The authors of the current Report imply that heightened media attention and additional administrative observation of testing for the 2010 CRCTs explain the “precipitous drops in flagged classrooms.”  Id.
[xv] R. Robin McDonald, Governor Releases APS Report After Getting AG Opinion, Fulton County Daily Report, July 6, 2011, http://www.dailyreportonline.com/Editorial/News/singleEdit.asp?individual_SQL= 7%2F6%2F2011%4038830.
[xvi] Investigative Report at i.-iii.
[xvii] Id. at i.
[xviii] McDonald.
[xix] Investigative Report at 8.  The Special Investigators conducted interviews using the initial erasure analysis to prioritize with whom they should speak and to provide evidence for their questioning.  Id. at 15.
[xx] Governor’s Office of Special Investigators, Outline of 800-page APS Cheating Investigation Report, Fulton County Daily Report, July 5, 2011,  http://www.dailyreportonline.com/Editorial/PDF/PDF%20Archive/ 0706_ apsoutline.pdf.
[xxi] Investigative Report at 2.
[xxii] Id. at 3-4.
[xxiii] Id.  at 21.
[xxiv] Id. at 382.
[xxv] Id. at 21, 29-52.
[xxvi] Id. at 3.
[xxvii] Id. at 3.
[xxviii] Id. at 2, 356-357.
[xxix] Id. at 2, 4.
[xxx] Id. at 4.
[xxxi] Id. at 2.
[xxxii] Id. at 350-54.  When combined with cheating, the cumulative effect “over a decade on the CRCT made meeting targets more difficult with each passing year.”  To maintain the gains of the past years while achieving the target of the current year required more cheating than in prior years.  Once cheating started it became a house of cards that collapsed upon itself.”  Id. at 355.
[xxxiii] Id. at 365.
[xxxiv] Id. at 356.
[xxxv] Id. at 366-368.  APS conducted its own internal investigations after meetings with GOSA concerning erasure data.  Id. at 391-92.
[xxxvi] Id. at 365 (quoting from a former APS principal).
[xxxvii] Id. at 365.
[xxxviii] Id. at 383-384.
[xxxix] Id. at 387-388.
[xl] Id. at 82.
[xli] Id. at 20.
[xlii] Id. at 26.
[xliii] Id. at 20-21.
[xliv] See, e.g., Id. at 27, 101.
[xlv] Id. at 55, 354.
[xlvi] Id. at 57.
[xlvii] Id. at 60.
[xlviii] See id. at 69.
[xlix] Id. at 376-378.
[l] Id. at 87 (citing testimony of witness).
[li] Id. at 54.
[lii] Id. at 68.
[liii] Id. at 60.
[liv] Id. at 25.
[lv] Id. at18.  The Report’s overview of school-level misconduct include the following offenses:
·         Teachers and administrators erased students’ incorrect answers after the test was given and filled in the correct answers;
·         The changing of answers by teachers and administrators was, in some cases, so sophisticated that plastic transparency answer sheets were created to make changing the test answer sheets easier;
·         Changing of answers was often done at weekend gatherings, and in at least one instance at a teacher’s home in Douglas County, Georgia;
·         A principal forced a teacher with low CRCT scores to crawl under a table at a faculty meeting;
·         Teachers arranged classroom seating for tests so that lower performing children could cheat off the higher scoring students;
·         Children were denied special education assistance because their falsely-reported CRCT scores were too high;
·         Students requested that they be assigned to a certain teacher because that educator was said to cheat;
·         First and second grade teachers used voice inflection while reading the test to identify the answer;
·         Teachers pointed to the correct answer while standing at students’ desks;
·         Teachers gave the answers aloud to students;
·         Some teachers allowed students to change the previous day’s incorrect responses after giving them correct answers;
·         Teachers looked ahead to discuss the next day’s questions;
·         In one classroom a student sat under his desk and refused to take the test.  This child passed. 
[lvi] See., e.g., id. at 53, 66, 72, 77.
[lvii] Id. at 337.
[lviii] See, e.g., id. at 325-29, 336..
[lix] Id. at 341.
[lx] Id. at 350.
[lxi] See, e.g., id. at 10, 17,
[lxii] See, e.g., id. at 76, 90.
[lxiii] Id. at 29, 60.
[lxiv] Id. at 29.
[lxv] Id.
[lxvi] Id. at 400-403.
[lxvii] Id. at 356.
[lxviii] Id. at 405-406.
[lxix] Id. at 2.
[lxx] Id. at 351.  The report notes that “[d]ata can be properly used as a tool to assess academic progress.  But data can also be used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish classroom teachers and principals or as a pretext to termination.”  Id. at 354.
[lxxi] Id. at 3.
[lxxii] Id. at 406-410.
[lxxiii] Id. at 2.
[lxxiv] Id. at 89.
[lxxv] Id. at 2.
[lxxvi] Id. at 8.
[lxxvii] Id. at 16.
[lxxviii] Id. at 356-365.
[lxxix] Id. at 409.
[lxxx] See, e.g., id. at 408.
[lxxxi] Id. at 6.

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