By Kevin Hogencamp
Former Dougherty Schools Superintendent Sally Whatley said Tuesday that system officials investigated a Criterion-Referenced Competency Test cheating complaint during 2008 and that it was dealt with appropriately.
An anonymous tipster prompted the investigation, Whatley confirmed, responding to an Albany Journal inquiry after the tipster’s complaint to Whatley was posted Tuesday on the Facebook page “Albany Voters for Good Leadership.”
The tipster further noted that there were other instances of cheating that resulted in Dougherty County School System teachers being terminated.
At a news conference earlier Tuesday, Whatley said that if cheating occurred on CRCT tests during her tenure as superintendent, she would accept full responsibility.
“Ultimately, it was my responsibility. It happened on my watch and it certainly isn’t the responsibility of (current Superintendent) Dr. (Joshua) Murfree. I was responsible for the system,” she said.
A state audit of erasures made on 2009 tests indicates that systematic CRCT cheating in the Dougherty County School is likely. But Whatley reinforced her earlier statements that she is not aware of any CRCT cheating during 2009 – the period under scrutiny by a Gov. Nathan Deal-ordered investigation. Further, Whatley says that all evidence available to her, including data compiled during the state audit and a separate internal investigation, supports her conclusion that the system hasn’t been a part of any systematic wrongdoing.
“The CRCT audit report clearly states that collateral evidence (of cheating) must be found,” Whatley said. “The audit taken in isolation (by itself) doesn’t prove cheating … For every test section there are 15 different forms per section. That would have to be an elaborate scheme for somebody to cheat.”
As part of its internal investigation, the Dougherty County School System sent a team to Indianapolis, Ind., at taxpayer expense. The team was not allowed access to tests taken by first- and second-graders, although 63 percent of the CRCT tests flagged during the state audit were taken by first and second graders.
“It’s not a high-stakes test. Questions are read to the children by the teachers,” she said.
Whatley said that if cheating had occurred during 2009, the system and the news media likely would have received anonymous tips. Indeed, she noted that some CRCT scores dropped in 2009; meanwhile, many CRCT scores dropped again in 2010 when state monitors observed the testing.
Whatley said that some, but not many, teachers were interviewed last year during the internal investigation. She says she doesn’t know why all teachers at the 14 “flagged” schools were not interviewed. The results of the system’s investigation, which included a representative from the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, were compiled in a report issued April 28, 2010.
A team of special investigators, headed by former state Attorney General Mike Bowers, began its work in Dougherty County on Monday after issuing a scathing 800-page report last month on the Atlanta Public Schools. Investigators interviewed Whatley on Monday; she said the meeting lasted three hours and that she was not accompanied by an attorney.
“They asked about my background, particularly my educational background,” Whatley said. “And I told them I do not believe there has been massive cheating in the Dougherty County School System. I had a great deal of confidence in the teachers and people of the school system. And I still do.”
Last month, an investigation revealed that 178 teachers from the Atlanta area from as early as 2001 cheated by falsifying CRCT test results. Additionally, 38 principals were linked to the scandal either by directly participating in the changing of wrong answers or allowing the changes to be made when they knew, or had the responsibility to know, what was going on.
Now, the probe has shifted to Dougherty County, where local officials insist that no cheating occurred while an investigator says that some teachers already have confessed. Like Atlanta, Dougherty County was flagged by state officials in an analysis of erasures and wrong-to-write answer changes on the 2009 CRCTs; teachers and administrators at 14 of Dougherty County’s 26 schools are suspected of cheating.
The Atlanta and Albany investigations are not only exploring who altered tests – but why. Motivations for doctoring tests include job preservation because of expectations placed on educators for their students’ to pass standardized testing, along with appeasing school leadership by meeting expected performance goals. A less selfish, yet misguided, motivation for some educators who cheat could be to advance low-performing students to boost the students’ self-esteem.
Whatley and Murfree have differing philosophies about anonymous tips. Last month, Murfree said in a press statement that educators with information about cheating should discuss the matter with him first. Murfree also said he would encourage investigators to ignore anonymous information provided to them during the probe. But last week, without addressing his concerns about anonymous tipsters, he encouraged his staffers to cooperate fully with investigators.
Editor’s note: Click here for the anonymous tipster’s letter and click here for the Dougherty County School System’s April 28, 2010 CRCT Audit Analysis Summary.