At first, it was hard to fathom the existence of a culture within Atlanta Public Schools that would overlook cheating on a massive scale, and by adults.
This was not, after all, a case of a few folks going rogue, not when large numbers of altered tests were traced back to almost 70 percent of APS elementary and middle schools. Numbers like that suggest a district-wide environment in which cheating somehow came to be more or less tolerated.
That was hard to imagine.
But as this thing has played out, the inconceivable has become more and more conceivable. The reaction of district officials — the lack of outrage, the grasping at implausible explanations, the rush to protect Superintendent Beverly Hall — offers an insight into the culture at APS that makes it all a little more understandable.
This is not about outsiders refusing to believe test scores that show inner-city students improving academically, as Hall and others have suggested. The erasure numbers are not statistical anomalies that can be explained by smaller classes or the district’s emphasis on having students recheck answers.
Other districts teach students to recheck answers. Other districts work with large numbers of disadvantaged students and small classes. But those other districts do not have 58 schools linked to improbably high numbers of erasures. There’s little sign that APS officials have come to grips with the real implication of those numbers.
Local and state education officials do warn against jumping to conclusions, and that’s true to a point. It’s important to make a distinction between what the recent state report says overall and what it may or may not say about individual teachers, principals and staff.
The state report tells us nothing about which individuals did what. The legal rights and reputations of teachers, principals and others must be protected, and all are entitled to due process. It is impossible at this point to reach conclusions regarding individual guilt or innocence, or even what occurred at a particular school.
But on a broader scale, some conclusions do seem justified.
Under Hall’s leadership, student test results have been used to determine the course of careers and the awarding of handsome bonuses. No doubt as a result, test scores have soared.
In the 1999-2000 academic year, just 47 percent of APS fourth-graders passed the state’s reading test. By last year, that number rose to 86 percent.
A decade ago, just 40 percent of APS sixth-graders passed the state’s English test. Last year, 89 percent did so. And those gains are not mere illusion. I have no doubt that under Hall’s driven leadership, APS students are getting not just better scores, but a better education.
However, it is also true that when you set out on a single-minded, almost holy mission of proving that no population of students is unreachable, you can blind yourself to certain dangers and deafen yourself to those you see as naysayers.
In this case, when test scores are given such emphasis, the temptation to cheat increases and the need to monitor results more closely increases as well. There is no sign that Hall recognized that danger.
To the contrary, even after smaller-scale investigations by the AJC and state officials produced evidence of cheating, Hall, her staff and the school board downplayed those findings.
Their lack of curiosity and seriousness forced state officials to conduct the more in-depth probe that APS should have conducted but did not.
Even now, district leaders refuse to entertain doubt. Last week, for example, school board chairwoman LaChandra Butler Burks still expressed absolute, total confidence in Hall’s performance as superintendent.
It’s the kind of faith that blinds people to trouble.