Atlanta schools created culture of cheating, fear

Teachers spent nights huddled in a back room, erasing wrong answers on students' test sheets and filling in the correct bubbles. At another school, struggling students were seated next to higher...

Teachers spent nights huddled in a back room, erasing wrong answers on students' test sheets and filling in the correct bubbles. At another school, struggling students were seated next to higher-performing classmates so they could copy answers.

Those and other confessions are contained in a new state report that reveals how far some Atlanta public schools went to raise test scores in the nation's largest-ever cheating scandal. Investigators concluded that nearly half the city's schools allowed the cheating to go unchecked for as long as a decade, beginning in 2001.

Administrators — pressured to maintain high scores under the federal No Child Left Behind law — punished or fired those who reported anything amiss and created a culture of "fear, intimidation and retaliation," according to the report released earlier this month, two years after officials noticed a suspicious spike in some scores.

The report names 178 teachers and principals, and 82 of those confessed. Tens of thousands of children at the 44 schools, most in the city's poorest neighborhoods, were allowed to advance to higher grades, even though they didn't know basic concepts.

One teacher told investigators the district was "run like the mob."

"Everybody was in fear," another teacher said in the report. "It is not that the teachers are bad people and want to do it. It is that they are scared."

For teachers and their bosses, the stakes were high: Schools that perform poorly and fail to meet certain benchmarks under the federal law can face sharp sanctions. They may be forced to offer extra tutoring, allow parents to transfer children to better schools, or fire teachers and administrators who don't pass muster.

Experts say the cheating scandal — which involved more schools and teachers than any other in U.S. history — has led to soul-searching among other urban districts facing cheating investigations and those that have seen a rapid rise in test scores.

In Georgia, teachers complained to investigators that some students arrived at middle school reading at a first-grade level. But, they said, principals insisted those students had to pass their standardized tests. Teachers were either ordered to cheat or pressured by administrators until they felt they had no choice, authorities said.

One principal forced a teacher to crawl under a desk during a faculty meeting because her test scores were low. Another principal told teachers that "Walmart is hiring" and "the door swings both ways," the report said.

Another principal told a teacher on her first day that the school did whatever was necessary to meet testing benchmarks, even if that meant "breaking the rules."

Teachers from the investigation contacted by The Associated Press did not return calls or declined to comment.

Educators named in the investigation could face criminal charges ranging from tampering with state documents to lying to investigators. And many could lose their teaching licenses.

Parents of children enrolled at the 44 schools say they are frustrated and angry.

Shawnna Hayes-Tavares said her son's test scores dropped dramatically after he transferred out of Slater Elementary. She said a testing coordinator at the new school told her the test scores could have been inflated.

The possibility that there could have been cheating "gives me and him a false sense of security as to where he is," she said.

Uncertainty about her son's progress "has not afforded us the opportunity to do more remediation in those areas of weakness," Hayes-Tavares said. "It robbed us of those opportunities. We're going to try to play catch up now."

At Slater, investigators found multiple teachers changed answers on tests or allowed students to look up answers to questions. Teachers would gather in the school's media center to change wrong answers with the blessing of administrators, investigators said.

For Renee Columbus, whose 4-year-old son is starting pre-kindergarten at one of the schools in the state investigation, news of the cheating probe was disheartening.

"Right now it's our only option," said Columbus, who lives in south Atlanta. "I'm hoping by the time he gets into kindergarten, we'll be in a different school district."

The fallout from the state report has only begun.

So far, at least four of the district's top administrators and two principals have been removed and put on paid leave. The head of the district's human resources department resigned after investigators said she destroyed documents and tried to cover up the extent of the cheating.

The schools could owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding they received for good test performance — money that would be lost at a time when the state's education budget has already been slashed by millions. Districts are being forced to lay off or furlough teachers and cut programs to make ends meet.

And at least one member of the Atlanta school board wants to reclaim tens of thousands of dollars in bonus money that former Superintendent Beverly Hall received for the high test scores.

Investigators said Hall, who retired just days before the investigation was made public, dismissed those who complained about cheating as naysayers trying to discredit the district's progress. The investigators said she either knew or should have known about the cheating.

"Dr. Hall and her senior cabinet accepted accolades when those below them performed well, but they wanted none of the burdens of failure," investigators wrote.

Hall's attorney has denied the allegations, and Hall has said she did not know about cheating in the district.

She apologized in a statement last week for "any shortcomings" that might have led to the widespread cheating.

"To the extent that I failed to take measures that would have prevented what the investigators have disclosed, I am accountable, as head of the school system, for failing to act accordingly," Hall wrote. "If I did anything that gave teachers the impression that I was unapproachable and unresponsive to their concerns, I also apologize for that."

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

Experts say the Atlanta cheating scandal has become the new rallying cry for education advocates and parents in other urban districts like Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., where cheating investigations are ongoing.

Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which works to end abuses in standardized testing and wants changes made to the federal No Child Left Behind law, said many are wondering where the "next Atlanta" will be.

"Because of Atlanta, the media and policymakers are going back and looking at concerns raised about their states," Schaeffer said. "This is the top issue. When you see a story like this and see the incredible impact of the confessions, you start to look and say, 'Hey, is there something comparable going on here?'"

___

Dorie Turner can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/dorieturner.

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