Beverly Hall’s uncertain legacy

Moderated by Maureen Downey

Former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall’s death Monday from breast cancer leaves many unresolved questions about the APS cheating scandal and her role in it. I discuss some of those questions today. Readers give their view of Dr. Hall’s legacy and the APS cheating scandal, and we share the conclusions of the sweeping 2010 state probe ordered by then Gov. Sonny Perdue.

An uncertain troubled legacy

By Maureen Downey

Former Atlanta school chief Beverly Hall leaves an uncertain legacy. Was she an inspirational leader who asked too much of educators inadequate to the challenge? Or did she set unrealistic goals and then ignore blatant evidence employees were cheating to comply? Even worse, did Hall conceal the evidence so as not to sully her national reputation as a visionary leader?

One distinct outcome of the 11-year Hall era at APS: No one will accept remarkable soars in test scores at face value any longer.

Hall’s last years were spent fighting both cancer and charges of racketeering and conspiracy related to what became the nation’s largest test-cheating scandal. While she garnered accolades for her condemnation of the tyranny of low expectations for poor children, Hall stood accused of her own form of tyranny.

Under what they described as unrelenting pressure to push up test scores, dozens of APS educators resorted to cheating on the state Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, ranging from subtle prompts to students during testing to cheating “parties” where educators erased wrong answers.

A 2009 Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation uncovered troubling test disparities in APS schools, prompting Gov. Sonny Perdue to order an unprecedented statewide review of erasure rates on all state answer sheets. The review found excessive numbers of wrong-to-right changes at 58 Atlanta schools —- more than two-thirds of the district’s elementary and middle schools.

The probe led to indictments and now a trial — but one that has proceeded without its most polarizing figure. Due to her terminal illness, the 68-year-old Hall did not stand trial.

Thus far, no testimony at the trial points to Hall directly ordering anyone to cheat. In a statement, Hall’s attorneys noted, “Even after millions of dollars, hundreds of witnesses and interviews, and a review of thousands upon thousands of emails, not a single witness has said, nor a single email demonstrated, that Dr. Hall ordered, directed, or participated in cheating.”

Rather, the testimony depicts a school leader on a mission to improve schools. And improvement came. Atlanta’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose. Atlanta still trailed the national average, but its students were moving ahead at a faster clip than peers in other urban systems.

Foundations flocked to Atlanta bearing awards for Hall, including National Superintendent of the Year in 2009. Delighted with the progress APS was showing, Hall set a higher and higher bar.

And that’s where it all went wrong.

Schools created war rooms to chart the successes and failures of individual teachers. Scores on the CRCT rose, but amid growing concerns the increases were suspicious. Evidence shows Hall ignored whistle blowers who expressed doubts. Their misgivings were rebuffed, even punished. She suppressed a statistical analysis APS commissioned that validated findings of questionable test scores by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Even faced with the scathing state findings, Hall told the AJC in a 2011 meeting she was not convinced. “As hard as it for people to believe, the research is very clear that when children are taught effectively, when teachers use appropriate strategies, when there are high expectations and a lot of support, children do improve and some of them improve dramatically, and just the fact they’ve improved dramatically doesn’t mean we need to say somebody cheated.”

Of all the hundreds of comments on the APS cheating scandal over the last few years, this comment to me by education activist Alfie Kohn is the most important:

“The problem here wasn’t just the illegal and immoral behavior of a few individuals, but an absurd system of top-down, heavy-handed, test-based accountability, which is why cheating scandals have been popping up all over the country for as long as we’ve had high-stakes testing. And even if the Hall administration had raised the scores without cheating, Atlanta schoolchildren were still cheated out of a real education because the schools were turned into glorified test-prep centers.”

State: Hall created a “culture of fear”

By Maureen Downey

In 2010, Gov. Sonny Perdue authorized an investigation into alleged cheating in APS on state exams after a sweeping AJC investigation revealed improbable score increases. Completed in 2011, the state report concluded Superintendent Beverly Hall should have been aware APS educators were cheating to raise student scores.

Thousands of school children were harmed by widespread cheating in the Atlanta Public School System. In 30 schools, educators confessed to cheating. We found cheating on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in 44 of the 56 schools (78.6%) we examined, and uncovered organized and systemic misconduct within the district as far back as 2001.Superintendent Beverly Hall and her senior staff knew, or should have known, that cheating and other offenses were occurring. Many of the accolades, and much of the praise, received by APS over the last decade were ill-gotten.A culture of fear and a conspiracy of silence infected this school system, and kept many teachers from speaking freely about misconduct. From the onset of this investigation, we were confronted by a pattern of interference by top APS leadership in our attempt to gather evidence. These actions delayed the completion of this inquiry and hindered the truth-seeking process.This veil of deniability at the school level was aptly illustrated by long-time Gideons Elementary principal Armstead Salters, who told his teachers: “If anyone asks you anything about this, just tell them you don’t know … just stick to the story and it will go away.”

There was a failure of leadership throughout APS with regard to the ethical administration of the 2009 CRCT. There are two main reasons for this failure. Dr. Hall’s insular style and her isolation from the rank-and-file was a major factor. In addition, Dr. Hall and her top managers refused to accept responsibility for anything other than success. As Dr. Hall’s Chief of Staff, Sharron Pitts, explained to us, “nobody ever wants to take responsibility for anything” in APS.

Deputy Superintendent Kathy Augustine oversaw daily classroom instruction, and operated as the de facto second-in-command. She told us that she should not be held responsible for cheating that took place in APS classrooms under her authority.

While this may be an appropriate defense to criminal charges, it is an absurd leadership concept. Dr. Hall and her senior cabinet accepted accolades when those below them performed well, but they wanted none of the burdens of failure.

Dr. Beverly Hall, superintendent of the Atlanta Public School System, was ultimately responsible for honestly and accurately reporting information to the State of Georgia regarding the evaluation of students. She certified to the Georgia Department of Education that the district “adhered to all written regulations and procedures relating to testing and test administration including the distribution and collection of test materials, test security, use of these results and department testing dates and the reporting of irregularities” as required by the relevant guidelines and test manuals. It is our finding from the statistical data and other evidence, that Dr. Hall’s certification to the state was false.

Dr. Hall failed in her leadership of, and ultimate responsibility for, testing activities and for ensuring the ethical administration of the CRCT in 2009, as well as in previous years…we conclude that Dr. Hall either knew or should have known cheating and other misconduct was occurring in the APS system.

 


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