By Jay Kernis
When scores on standardized tests went up year after year in Atlanta public schools, Dr. Beverly Hall got much of the credit. She had been recruited for the job of schools superintendent after decades of success in New York City and Newark, New Jersey. She started her job in Atlanta in 1999, and a decade later was named the National School Superintendent of the Year.
The remarkable transformation in math and reading scores attracted not only national attention, but large amounts of money to the school system, for example, more than $40 million from philanthropic foundations.
But, this past July, investigators appointed by Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue issued the results of a 10-month probe into alleged test tampering. Investigators Bob Wilson, a former Dekalb County district attorney, Mike Bowers, a former state attorney general, and former Atlanta police detective Richard Hyde, had uncovered the largest cheating scandal ever in American schools. They concluded that 178 teachers and principals had cheated in 44 schools across the Atlanta system on the spring 2009 CRCT, the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test taken by 1st through 8th graders. And that cheating had gone on for years.
Bowers and Wilson told Rock Center's Harry Smith that school administrators had ignored significant and clear warnings that educators had cheated to raise student scores-that teachers would prompt students during tests with verbal clues or physical prompts. Or, that teachers would gather after school or on weekends , erase wrong answers and change them to correct ones.
The governor's investigators concluded that Dr. Hall either knew or should have known about the cheating and that she created pressure from the top ranks.
Smith asked Hall why she thought teachers and educators changed test answers. She said, "I can't subscribe motives to people, I can only think that either they were not secure in their ability to do the job, or they didn't believe the children-even if they did their job, could learn. Or a combination of the two. I can't explain it any other way."
But investigators accused Dr. Hall of ruling by fear and intimidation. That her mandate was "no exceptions, no excuses."
Dr. Hall, in her first television interview, responds, "I can't imagine where the fear and intimidation came from. It certainly did not come from the top. I just can't see where adults would be able to use that as an excuse."
The investigators also point to the federal No Child Left Behind Law, now being revamped by the Department of Education. But for many years, schools that didn't show progress faced significant consequences, so when she arrived, Dr. Hall instituted a program of academic targets-new standards that her schools had to meet. If they met those targets, Atlanta school employees received bonuses from $50 to $200 dollars. Dr. Hall herself earned more than $580,000 in bonuses during her 12 years in the school system.
Dr. Hall says there were measurable improvements under her leadership. She said, "We have spent a billion dollars on building or renovating the schools of Atlanta. We have transformed failing high schools where now 94 percent of the kids are graduating."
More than 3,000 Atlanta teachers did not cheat. Dr. Hall left the school system in June and her successor, Erroll Davis, has taken steps to safeguard test answer sheets and change the culture in the school system. But those who stand accused now face the scrutiny of a grand jury investigation, revocation of their teaching licenses and some may even face criminal charges. The scandal may cost the city millions.
How much responsibility does Dr. Hall accept for what happened?
She told Harry Smith, "I accept the responsibility for not anticipating that we needed more security and more protocols…but ultimately, the person who cheated is the person who is responsible for their actions." She added, "I hope that if I were to do this again that I would learn from this that I have to anticipate that people will be devious."
According to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, in the past three years, cheating has been discovered in schools in more than 30 states, including New York, Texas, California, Ohio, Florida, South Dakota, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Maryland and in Washington, DC.