When Atlanta School Superintendent Beverly L. Hall arrived on the scene in 1999, she promised to turn around the poorly-performing school district and make it a model of urban success. Hall didn’t disappoint supporters, including her school board, and managed to deliver results year after year showing students’ test scores on a steady rise.
The impressive data on the standardized Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests proved that students were doing better- in fact much better than seemed even possible in such a short time. Hall rose to national prominence on the back of her magic touch, turning lackluster students into outstanding ones.
An ongoing investigation now claims that Superintendent Hall and associates knew about, and even promoted cheating, in the Atlanta public school system. President Obama just appointed her to the National Board of Educational Sciences.
In 2009, Hall was named the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators, the top professional honor for a K-12 education leader in the United States. In May, President Obama named hall to the National Board for Education Sciences.
Just when things couldn’t seem to get any better, outsiders began questioning the test scores as being too good to be true. Starting in 2008, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution launched its own investigation into whether the quickly rising scores could even be correct.
Its conclusion, based on an independent study by the University of Pennsylvania – that the scores were statistically impossible – set of a chain reaction within the district, at the state department of education and with criminal investigators from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Ultimately, outside investigators found widespread evidence of cheating in at least 58 schools. Test sheets showed that incorrect answers were erased on tests, and correct answers were substituted. Investigators also said that many teachers admitted to changing test results, and supplying questions and answers to students before handing out tests.
Throughout the investigation, school officials, including Hall, claimed that they were completely unaware of the widespread cheating.
On Sunday, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a new report claiming that Hall and other officials ran a behind-the-scenes campaign to suppress evidence that the district’s gains were in fact, bogus. Documents recently obtained by the AJC show that authorities knew much more about the cheating than they admitted publicly, and that they acted in a manner to downplay or dismiss information that would be damaging to themselves.
Even though Hall and school officials agreed to not interfere with a state-mandated investigation, their actions were entirely opposite. Hall’s aides insisted on screening prospective investigators, interviewing witnesses and editing reports issued by a so-called Blue Ribbon Commission formed by the school board to conduct an internal investigation.
The Blue Ribbon Commission was intended to be an independent operation, but school officials inserted themselves into its investigation at every possible juncture. The 15 member BRC commission itself was suspect, in that it consisted of local leaders, many of whom had business with the school district.
Internal emails clearly showed that the BRC sought direction from school district officials on the investigation, and provided them with draft documents for their review and comments. Even though the BRC was supposed to be looking for evidence of cheating, emails from Superintendent Hall and her top aides suggested it look for evidence to challenge damaging information to discredit data uncovered by state officials.
To help in its investigation, BRC hired the auditing firm of KPMG to independently question school employees about the cheating and to look for any other evidence of irregularities. Critics say that KPMG’s so called “independent” review was compromised, since many of its interviews with teachers and administrators were “coached” or lead by district officials.
KPMG’s questionnaires filled out by school employees, and obtained by the AJC, also appeared to be tainted. Summaries of questionnaires and interviews were sent directly to Hall’s chief of staff, Sharon Pitts, for school officials’ review. Any irregularities were instructed to be brought to the attention of Pitts, allegedly so that she could notify KPMG.
By June 2010, KPMG had spent more than the $350,000 budget for its investigation, and the BRC ordered them to stop its work. The BRC said that the auditors had provide incomplete information and its findings were unclear. At this point, the BRC took over the responsibility to complete the investigation.
According to documents reviewed by the AJC, the most significant piece of damning evidence collected by KPMG came through a “tip hotline” that was set up to solicit information for their investigation. An anonymous, but credible caller left a message claiming that Hall and two top aides condoned cheating for years, and told principals to achieve better test scores by any means necessary.
The caller said that one of Hall’s top aides, Sharon-Davis Williams, had told principals to “tamper” with test results, and Deputy Superintendent Kathy Augustine, “was pushing the issue to principals that they needed to have high scores by any means necessary.”
The caller also said that the district’s central office sent out copies of the CRCT standardized test to select schools in advance and told principals to give the questions and answers to students in advance of the examinations.
After Hall’s office reviewed the KPMG findings in the commission’s preliminary report,all references to that specific call were removed. Of 51 allegations in the draft report, many of which were anonymous, 50 of them made it into the final report-but not the most serious accusation.
The commission’s chair, Gary price, said the allegation was left out because it was “broad and vague.” It was taken very seriously,” he said. “There wasn’t any attempt to hide it.”
Also removed from the final report was a letter from Andrew Porter, a consultant who confirmed the statistical indications of cheating. All references to his opinion were removed within a few days of the report having been reviewed by Hall’s staff.
The deletions didn’t stop there. The draft report indicated that cheating was found at 41 schools, but after the district’s input, it was changed to 12 schools in the final report. The commission also deleted mention of four schools in which it had found evidence of cheating, between the draft and final reports.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution