By John Schaffner
and Maggie Lee

Buckhead neighborhood groups are asking the Fulton County District Attorney to investigate Atlanta schools for possible cheating as a school system investigation had been criticized and produced a subsequent state investigation.

A report released Aug. 2 by the Atlanta school system’s “blue ribbon” commission pointed to possible cheating on the 2009 Criterion Referenced Competency Test at just 12 APS schools —none in Buckhead – even though the state had identified as many as 58 schools for possible cheating on high-stakes tests.

Dist. 4 Atlanta School Board member Nancy Meister, along with four of her colleagues, voted that day not to accept the report because, Meister said, they “had not had enough time to review attachments to the report that were first provided on the day the board was to vote on the report.” The board later accepted the report.

First-year school board member Meister, who represents Buckhead, and Ponder Harrison, an independent member of the “blue ribbon commission” explained the findings of the commission the board’s vote at the Aug. 12 meeting of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods.

At the end of that meeting, and after Meister and Harrison had departed, the neighborhood representatives voted to urge Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard to launch a criminal investigation of the 58 Atlanta schools for possible test-score cheating and also for possible misappropriation of taxpayer funds on teacher and administration bonuses.

That action by the BCN representatives was one of a series of events surrounding the study commission report that .culminated with Perdue naming former state Attorney General Mike Bowers and former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson to head a special investigation into the school system.

Both are seasoned litigators. They were armed with subpoena powers, which was not available to the APS study commission, so the commission could not compel teachers and administrators to talk.

The school system issued a statement promising to cooperate with the new investigation. “APS welcomes the governor’s call for a special investigator to look into this matter, and the district will fully cooperate with all aspects of that investigation,” the statement said.

Perdue turned to an obscure 1943 state law that grants him authority to appoint special investigators to probe agencies or individuals that have dealings with state government. Systems administering the CRCT tests appear to fall under such jurisdiction.

“What has happened here has stunted the education growth of thousands of children by adults who cheated,” the governor told the state Board of Education during its regular meeting Aug. 18, two days before he appointed Bowers and Wilson. “This is about seeking out a small group of people who have failed to hold up the high ideals most Georgia teachers live by.”

Atlanta School Superintendent Beverly Hall

Earlier, Atlanta School Superintendent Beverly Hall reported that she had transferred the principals of 12 of the schools considered most problematic in the test score erasures scandal and had referred 108 staff members to a state review commission for further investigation. .

Then, during her annual “State of the Schools” address Aug. 17, announced she will implement 29 recommendations from the independent blue ribbon panel in how high-impact tests are handled to prevent teachers or administrators from cheating by correcting students’ answers.

“In every profession, unfortunately, in every walk of life, you have people who, for whatever reason, are unethical,” Hall said.

Explaining in part why 108 system employees were under suspicion of erasing students’ answers on CRCT exams and filling in correct responses, she said, “We want to make it so difficult for people to even think about cheating that we will minimize if not totally ever eliminate [it].”

Hitting CRCT score targets earns teachers in successful schools a pay-for-performance bonus – an incentive perhaps strong enough for some to cheat. But Hall rejects that proposition and said she stood by objective measures of success.

“I feel the people who would cheat would not take the time to work toward what they need to do to meet those accountability targets,” Hall said, placing the blame on cheaters, not the system.

“We have research,” she added, “that says if you teach using the best practices, appropriate systems, children will learn and you don’t have to cheat.”

A February state audit first suggested the secret fixes in Atlanta. When Hall ordered a detailed study, she found evidence of an acute problem in 12 Atlanta schools, a moderate problem in 13 more and minor concerns in a final 33.

In another defense of the school system, Hall stood by the calculation that Atlanta high schools had a 69 percent graduation rate. That’s a rise from 39 percent in 2002, according to APS calculations.

A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution report suggested hundreds of dropouts were improperly categorized as transfers. During the period the newspaper found 16,000 departures, explained Hall, “we had a loss in enrollment of 300 [high school] kids.”

Hall blamed the discrepancy on “dirty data” resulting from a transfer from an old computer system to a new one. She said the system has posted roughly consistent graduation rates since 2005.

During the Aug. 12 BCN meeting, the presentation by Meister and Harrison turned into a venting of outrage by the members and guests regarding the level of education of APS youth, the cost to taxpayers and Hall’s administration.

BCN representatives voiced skepticism about the blue ribbon commission’s report, saying key members of the commission do millions of dollars of business with the school system. The BCN members also questioned the response of the school board and school administration to the report.

Asked if she was surprised by the reaction, Meister said she was “surprised and proud and happy that a community that was not involved came together and was involved. I was very, very impressed.”

“The board accepted the report as a tool,” she said, “and I personally support the further investigation.” She added, the board “is not judge and jury.”

Asked about her first eight months as a member of the school board, Meister said, “I expected challenging work, but nobody expected this.”

John Schaffner

John Schaffner was founding editor of Reporter Newspapers.