With the news that the feds are now investigating whether Atlanta schools cheated on the state exams and thus received federal grants to which they were not entitled, there are now two investigations of APS under way simultaneously. It seems like APS employees could spend most of the next few months answering questions about what they saw or heard in April of 2009 during the administration of the CRCT.
I still wonder if either investigation will produce any significant results. The success of both probes depends on the willingness of employees at suspect schools to either confess or turn in their colleagues. And the latter could only happen if teachers or administrators witnessed cheating or were told about it later. It would not be enough to maintain that cheating must have happened because the test scores were too high.
And I think a lot of this cheating happened in isolation, not in front of colleagues. If investigators interview students, it will be hard to expect young kids to accurately recount the conditions under which they took the CRCT 18 months ago and whether their teacher might have told them to “Reconsider your answer to No. 23 again” or “Remember what we reviewed about prime numbers last week.”
An exasperated Sonny Perdue appointed two high-profile prosecutors to the CRCT probe — former DeKalb DA Bob Wilson and former AG Mike Bowers. The team was in Albany last week investigating Dougherty County, which, like Atlanta, had a shocking number of wrong to right erasures at many of its schools. Dougherty declared its schools clear of any wrongdoing after a cursory review.
Now, the AJC is reporting that federal authorities are investigating APS for fraud if it can be proven that schools won federal grants based on fabricated test scores.
According to the AJC:
Authorities have begun conducting interviews and may soon issue subpoenas for documents related to the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, according to officials familiar with the investigation. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss an open inquiry.
But if the schools are found to have earned extra grants through inflated scores, officials could face criminal charges. The U.S. attorney’s office also could ask a judge to order the school district to reimburse the federal government. The bonus grants for Atlanta schools total nearly $360,000 a year.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Atlanta, Patrick Crosby, declined to comment. The region’s chief investigator for the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general did not respond to requests for an interview.
The school district has not received subpoenas or other requests for information from federal authorities, spokesman Keith Bromery said Friday. “We have no knowledge of any federal interest in or investigation of that matter.”
A federal investigation would represent a major expansion of the inquiries into how the Atlanta schools raised test scores. It also would underscore the degree to which the cheating scandal challenges the integrity of the district’s claims of steady academic improvement during the past decade.
The statistically improbable gains that some Atlanta schools posted on the CRCT first came to light in articles in the AJC in 2008 and 2009. When state officials studied erasures on CRCT answer sheets from 2009, they found excessive numbers of wrong-to-right changes in 58 Atlanta schools — more than two-thirds of the district’s elementary and middle schools.
“Any time the U.S. attorney’s office decides to investigate something like this, it’s going to be very methodical, very document-intensive,” said Atlanta lawyer Jeffrey Brickman, a former federal prosecutor and a former DeKalb County district attorney. “They would start off by issuing subpoenas, then will review the documents and follow the evidence where it leads them.
“Both sides will have to be very careful not to step on each other’s toes and not compromise each other’s investigation. It’s always important to play well with others in the same sandbox.”