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The legacy of Beverly Hall: Did former APS school chief care more about scores than students?


With the death of former Atlanta school chief Beverly Hall will come a debate over her legacy.

Was she a driven leader who demanded too much of educators who were not up to the job? Or did she set unrealistic goals and then ignore blatant evidence that her employees were cheating to reach those goals?

Even worse, did Hall conceal the evidence as not to sully her national reputation as a visionary leader? Was her vaunted reputation more important than the truth?

There is one certain legacy of the Hall era at APS: No one will take remarkable leaps 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 the APS cheating scandal. Her illness delayed her trial.

While Hall gained a national reputation for her condemnation of the tyranny of low expectations for poor children, she stands accused of her own form of tyranny.

Fulton County prosecutors charged her with caring more about test scores than students. Under pressure by their principals to raise test scores, dozens of APS educators resorted to cheating on the state CRCT, ranging from subtle prompts to students during testing to cheating “parties” where educators erased wrong answers.

Teachers described being worn down by relentless demands they do better. Some felt their jobs were at stake. They all felt there was no way to meet their target scores without cheating.

The end result of Hall's push for improved performance was the opposite goal of what she had sought. She arrived in Atlanta promising to prove that poor children could learn to high standards with dedication, effort and data-driven instruction.

But, in the end, Hall created a perception students in Atlanta's poorest schools were unteachable, that teachers could not move their students to higher and higher levels without cheating.

It was an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation in 2009 that first uncovered troubling test disparities in Atlanta Public Schools, prompting Gov. Sonny Perdue to order a statewide review of erasure rates on all state exams in 2009

That 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.

Alarmed and angry over what he considered Hall’s failure to take the findings seriously and act, Perdue asked former state Attorney General Mike Bowers,  former DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson and investigator Richard Hyde to look at Atlanta and Dougherty County public school systems.

That state 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 with other APS educators.

Thus far, no testimony at the trial points to Hall directly ordering anyone to cheat. Rather, the testimony shows a school leader on a mission to improve her schools. And there was improvement. 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 rate than peers in other urban systems.

Foundations came calling with awards for Hall, including National Superintendent of the Year. Delighted with the progress APS was showing, Hall set a higher bar.

And that’s where it all went wrong.

Schools created war rooms where the successes and failures of individual teachers were charted. Scores on state tests rose, but amid growing concerns the increases were not legitimate.

Hall chose to ignore the whistle blowers who came forward with those doubts. Their misgivings were rebuffed, even punished. She concealed a report that confirmed the AJC findings that score jumps at some schools were not only improbable, but near impossible.

Of all the hundreds of comments on the APS cheating scandal over the last few years, I consider something said to me by education activist Alfie Kohn to be 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."

The trial has just ended its 19th week.

The defense for the 12 former APS educators on trial has rested, and closing arguments are expected to begin March 16.

According to the AJC:

More than a month earlier than expected, defense attorneys for the 12 defendants rested, prosecutors presented rebuttal witnesses, and all the evidence was in. Here's how that happened: The defense presented far fewer witnesses than the prosecution, and none of the defendants testified.

The Fulton County District Attorney's Office called 133 people to the stand. They painted the dozen defendants as a selfish gang of teachers and administrators who, in an alleged racketeering scheme, changed answers on standardized tests to inflate scores, defraud the government, cheat students and protect their own careers.

Defense lawyers called a total of 29 witnesses to describe the opposite: hardworking, honest educators just trying to do a job. Veteran defense attorney Jack Martin, who was not involved in the APS trial but has followed it, said it's understandable the defendants didn't testify. Sometimes it's better, he said, to let the jury focus on the prosecution's evidence, or lack of it, than on the words and demeanor of a client. "You might be absolutely innocent, but the jury expects you to be perfect."

 

On AJC.com: Beverly Hall dies; criminal case — and her legacy — unresolved

Updates on the Atlanta Public Schools Testing Case

How the case began: AJC's original investigation that questioned Atlanta's school test scores


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.