How Fear and Intimidation Led to Massive Atlanta School Cheating

Atlanta Public Schools are reeling from the fallout of a state investigation that confirmed reports of a massive test cheating scandal throughout the district. On Thursday, the interim state superintendent Erroll Davis announced four main reforms the district will adopt immediately, and vowed that educators who participated in the cheating would never teach in Atlanta public schools again.

Earlier this week a report from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation revealed that 178 teachers and 38 principals had participated in cheating in the district. The new state investigation confirms a cheating scandal of stunning breadth. The GBI investigation confirmed cheating in 44 of 56 public schools they looked into. Eighty teachers confessed to participating in the district's cheating.

The initial instances of cheating were reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The district ordered an audit of their reporting, which recently confirmed the AJC's initial findings. The state investigation has been called the largest investigation of standardized test cheating in U.S. public schools. Much of the shock about Atlanta's cheating scandal comes from the fact that the district had become a reform darling; in recent years it had made unbelievable jumps in test score gains, both in state and national standards tests.

Those results have been called into question now.

Atlanta's teachers tried to raise flags years ago about being forced to help students cheat on standardized tests, said Verdaillia Turner, the president of the Atlanta Federation of Teachers.

In 2005, Turner said, one of her members came to the union with concerns about cheating that was happening at Dunbar Elementary School. The GBI report named Dunbar as a site where cheating on the state standards test, the CRCT.

"One teacher's own daughter was in a lady, Ms. Ibey's class," Turner said. "That teacher's daughter made over 830 on the reading part of the Georgia CRCT, and the teacher complained to me and said, "Turner, my daughter could not have gotten that score because she is in remedial reading."

Turner said that after three teachers from Dunbar came forward with concerns about cheating at their school, Dunbar's then-principal, Corliss Davenport, would "constantly come into their rooms and would say nasty things to them."

"On the last day of school, Ms. Davenport put them in front of all the parents, lined them up, and said to the parents, 'Parents, here are the teachers who are failing your students.'"

Turner said that attempts to file complaints and raise concerns with the board of professional standards, with the Office of Internal Resolution, with members of the board of education, were ignored, and that over the years Atlanta's education officials helped orchestrate a complicated network to silence those who wanted to speak up about misconduct in schools.

Turner's suspicions, and the concerns of her members, were confirmed by the recently released state report.

"The 2009 CRCT [test] statistics are overwhelming and allow for no conclusion other than widespread cheating," a summary of the report from Gov. Deal's office read.

The report laid out three main reasons for the widespread cheating: politicians and school officials set and enforced unreasonable targets for yearly testing progress that were to be met at any cost. This in turn helped institute a culture of fear and intimidation throughout the district. So obsessed was the district with test results, it discarded concerns about ethics.

"APS became such a 'data-driven' system, with unreasonable and excessive pressure to meet targets, that [former Atlanta Public Schools superintendent] Beverly Hall and her senior cabinet lost sight of conducting tests with integrity," the report said. The report said that Hall and other district officials lied to investigators, ordered draft reports of earlier, separate investigations to be destroyed, and denied knowledge of misconduct that they in fact were well aware of.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released a statement Thursday, saying he was "stunned" at the confirmed reports of widespread cheating.

In October of last year, when the state investigation was still underway, Duncan said that any unethical behavior had to be addressed, but added that Atlanta's stellar progress could not be forgotten.

"However, it cannot be ignored that under Dr. Hall's leadership," Duncan said, that Atlanta Public Schools had reported huge, double-digit jumps on the national standards tests.

"Whatever the outcome of the state investigation, these accomplishments should not go unrecognized," he said at the time, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Atlanta is far from the only school district to be dealing with widespread cheating scandals. Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City have all had to respond to confirmed reports of cheating in public and charter schools in recent years. Testing critics say the proliferation of cheating is a symptom of the country's obsession with testing and teacher accountability.

Reports of cheating have been located primarily in low-income neighborhoods where students of color are concentrated because these are the areas that feel the most pressure to turn around test score gains, said Bob Schaeffer, education director of FairTest, an advocacy group that's critical of high-stakes testing.

"There just isn't the incentive to cheat in wealthier neighborhoods because test scores are already high," Schaeffer said, "but in low-income, urban areas for the most part, the political expectations are the most unreasonable for incredibly fast rates of progress."

"We now know that Atlanta's progress was at best exaggerated and at worst fradulent," Schaeffer said.

"Teachers and administrators in a setting like that feel set up for failure. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place, between idiotic laws that have no relation to the educational reality, and which are being enforced through sanctions that include closing the school and firing the employees."

Under No Child Left Behind, schools that do not meet their AYP, or adequate yearly progress targets on standardized tests, face closure and dramatic "turnaround" tactics that include a range of options, including putting the school up for charter school takeover, or, as Schaeffer said, calling on the entire school's staff to be fired and no more than half rehired.

"This overemphasis on test scores has perverted the educational and ethical process," Schaeffer said.

In Atlanta, the silencing fear teachers felt was further compounded by the fact that Georgia is a right to work state, Turner said, where teachers are not automatically unionized and do not have collective bargaining rights. The lack of leadership and representation meant that teachers were isolated from each other and did not have a unified voice to speak about their concerns without fear of retaliation.

"People need their jobs," Turner said.

"The bottom line is this is an unfortunate consequence of this nation's obsession with test scores and with putting so much weight on test scores to determine teacher and student performance," said Janet Bass, a spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers.

"We don't condone any kind of cheating," Bass said. "But when our Atlanta affiliate exposed the problem they were ignored, and they heard crickets. And that's the shameful part. They hurt the students more than anybody else."

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