NOTE: This post has been updated as of 3:30 p.m. Thursday.
“We can’t yet say that there was pervasive cheating,” Atlanta Schools Superintendent told WABE’s Denis O’Hayer in an interview this week.
That statement, and others like it, are stunning, particularly since they come after release of a new report on the cheating scandal, this one commissioned by the district itself. Among other things, the new report puts the odds of a natural explanation for widespread changes in standardized test results in Atlanta schools at roughly one in 10 million.
But rather than accept responsibility, Hall and her supporters direct our attention to the part of the report that clears the superintendent and her staff of involvement.
“The investigative team did not find any data or other evidence, nor were there qualified allegations made, that there was any district-wide or centrally coordinated effort to manipulate the 2009 CRCT scores and outcomes of students in the 58 APS schools,” it concluded.
That means nothing. In effect, it clears Hall of a charge that was never seriously leveled against her in the first place, and it sidesteps the big issues:
How did this happen, and why shouldn’t Hall, as superintendent, be held responsible?
Initially, state officials identified likely cheating in 58 of the Atlanta district’s 84 elementary and middle schools. This week’s report, conducted by a blue-ribbon panel appointed by Atlanta school officials, confirms the large scale of the cheating scandal, even as it strains to reduce the number of schools implicated.
In 12 schools, according to the new report, the cheating problems were “substantially school wide.” A total of 78 individuals — including 30 administrators — have been implicated at those schools. In another 13 schools, cheating problems were allegedly more limited, and 25 employees — eight administrators and 17 educators — are implicated. Six staff at other schools are also suspected.
In effect, the Atlanta report succeeds in slashing the number of schools involved by more than half. The problem is that even if you accept Atlanta’s numbers as valid, the scale remains remarkable. We’re not talking one or two schools or even a handful. We’re talking 25. We’re not talking a dozen employees implicated in altering test results; we’re talking more than 100.
It’s also important to note that while the investigation has focused on 2009, this problem did not erupt out of the blue. The cheating has been going on for years, spreading over time like a virus as personnel were transferred from school to school and as people talked, quietly, about how to game the system. (This year, with close monitoring of test taking and handling, Atlanta scores on the state-mandated CRCT mysteriously fell sharply across the board, even in schools that were “cleared” of cheating.)
So with at least 100 personnel and 25 schools deeply implicated, and many other staff members no doubt aware at some level of what was going on, how is it possible for Hall and others to have been blissfully unaware? Even if you believe her claims of ignorance, as I tend to do, what does it say about district culture that such a broad scandal could go on for so long without the whistle being blown?
Hall’s comments this week answered those questions definitively. As superintendent, she has built her career and reputation on the importance of data and statistics. Now, when that data scream that widespread cheating occurred under her watch, she goes deaf, claiming “we can’t yet say.”
If two sets of analysis by experts can’t convince her, what chance would one or two honest whistle-blowers have had?
While cheating is clearly a major scandal in its own right, it must also be recognized as a symptom of still deeper problems. Hall has made enormous progress during her time as superintendent and deserves many of the accolades she has received. But there have to be reasons that this scandal occurred on such a scale in the Atlanta district and nowhere else.
The problems also go higher than Hall. The defensive response of the Atlanta School Board, including its refusal to accept the report of its own commission, suggests little hunger among a majority of its members to deal with the full implications of the scandal.
Ironically, Hall’s approach to education reform has stressed accountability, which is exactly what she now seeks to escape. By refusing to accept responsibility, she makes an argument for her own replacement.