Year Before Truth Emerged, NY Times Reporter Vindicated Atlanta School Leader in Cheating Scandal
New York Times education columnist Michael Winerip filed a fact-filled column Monday on the dramatic unraveling of an unprecedented cheating conspiracy that pushed test scores up in Atlanta public schools, “Cracking a System In Which Test Scores Were for Changing.”
Yet in August 2010, the Times was puzzled as to why Atlanta school superintendent Beverly Hall, who is now under suspicion, was still under fire: "Even after an independent investigation recently found that the problem was much less widespread, critics have called for her resignation and attacked the investigation’s credibility."
There had long been suspicions that cheating on state tests was widespread in the Atlanta public schools, but the superintendent, Beverly L. Hall, was feared by teachers and principals, and few dared speak out. Last summer a supposedly Blue Ribbon Commission, headed by a businessman volunteering his time, produced yet another flimsy report, urging further investigation.
Gov. Sonny Perdue said he was fed up and determined to conduct a thorough investigation. For this, he called on three men who had spent a good part of their careers putting people in prison: Michael J. Bowers, a former state attorney general; Robert E. Wilson, a former county district attorney; and Richard L. Hyde, who could well be the most dogged investigator in Georgia.
It took them 10 months to uncover the biggest cheating scandal ever in a public school district.
It is now clear that for years Dr. Hall headed a school system rife with cheating and either didn’t notice, as she maintains, or covered it up, as investigators suspect. During that time, she was named superintendent of the year by two national organizations, and praised by the secretary of education himself -- for her rigorous use of test data as an evaluation tool.
But back in August 2010, Times reporter Shaila Dewan embraced that same “flimsy” report in two stories, trumpeting Superintendent Hall’s apparent vindication while hinting at a racial element to the criticism.
Dawan's August 3, 2010 “Cheating Inquiry in Atlanta Largely Vindicates Schools” opened: “The Atlanta public school system was substantially vindicated Monday when the results of an independent investigation into cheating on standardized tests were released.”
Dewan followed up on August 8, 2010 to provide a victory lap for Hall: “Cheating Scandal Haunts Atlanta School Superintendent.” (In context the headline is more regretful than ominous.)
Early on in Beverly L. Hall’s 11-year tenure as superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, she figured that the academic gains she intended to make with the city’s mostly poor, black students would face skepticism.
“I knew the day would come when people would question, was the progress real?” she said in an interview last week.
So Dr. Hall took a risk, signing up for a trial program to track and compare urban school districts. Since then, Atlanta has made the highest gains in the program in reading and among the highest in math, making it a national model and Dr. Hall a star in the education field.
But that has not insulated her from a cheating scandal that initially threatened to engulf two-thirds of the district’s 84 schools. Even after an independent investigation recently found that the problem was much less widespread, critics have called for her resignation and attacked the investigation’s credibility.
Throughout the crisis, Dr. Hall has responded with a cool professionalism rather than the outrage that some critics have demanded. Even as she has vowed to ferret out any dishonest educators and has removed the principals of the 12 schools, she has insisted that pervasive wrongdoing has yet to be proven.
Dawan boosted the same report Winerip would characterize 11 months later as “flimsy.” (Dawan passed along some foreboding details in her August 3 report, noting that the initial commission "was limited by its lack of subpoena power," but that caveat was buried in paragraph six of seven.)
Meanwhile, a blue-ribbon commission appointed by a nonprofit education group was investigating the 58 schools. The commission, using Caveon Test Security, a firm that specializes in forensic data analysis, conducted a more nuanced erasure analysis than the state’s, taking into account factors like whether the erasures actually made a difference in whether the student passed.
Dawan even criticized local media outlets for remaining skeptical – a skepticism utterly vindicated, though some details were initially reported incorrectly.
But local news organizations seemed unable to digest the investigation findings. WABE, the local NPR affiliate, incorrectly reported -- twice -- that the commission had referred all 58 schools for further investigation. On its Web site, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first trumpeted “Cheating found at 58 public schools,” then did an about-face and accused the investigators of disregarding irregularities in hundreds of classrooms.
Perhaps it was Dewan unable to "digest" the true shallowness of the initial findings.