Keri Ware, left, and Roslyn Mowatt, right, were part of the investigative team appointed to probe allegations of widespread cheating in the Atlanta Public Schools system.
August 22, 2011
ATLANTA -- Georgia State University College of Law alumna Keri Ware grew up in metro Atlanta, but she was not really familiar with the Atlanta Public Schools system until recently. Now she knows more about the district than she ever imagined she would.
Ware and fellow GSU Law class of 2000 graduate Roslyn Mowatt got acquainted with APS over the past year as part of the investigative team appointed to probe allegations of widespread cheating within the school system on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. The resulting report, more than 800 pages long including exhibits, shocked the city and state with little more than a month to go before the start of the school year.
“I felt like I was able to use the skills that I have as a lawyer to really make a difference for someone else, primarily the children in Atlanta public schools,” Ware said of taking part in the investigation. “Even though we were representing the state, we were making a difference for these kids, and hopefully for the Atlanta public school system’s future.”
Ware, a partner at Decatur’s Wilson, Morton & Downs, LLC, and Mowatt, an associate there, joined the case after one of their firm’s founding partners was tapped as a lead investigator in August 2010. From then until the release of the report in July 2011, the attorneys were immersed in document review, statistical analysis, interviews with teachers and administrators and writing up their findings.
Allegations of test tampering in Atlanta’s schools first surfaced about a decade ago following a suspicious jump in test scores, but were laid aside when the numbers continued along that trajectory. Concerns arose again years later when a handful of Georgia schools showed statistically improbable progress between the spring 2008 CRCT results and the summer retests. A state investigation of that yielded evidence of cheating in four schools, only one of them part of APS.
In 2009, the same year APS superintendent Beverly Hall was named national superintendent of the year, Georgia CRCT scores improved in every area, prompting the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement to conduct a statewide analysis of all 2009 CRCT answer sheets looking for wrong-to-right erasures. Atlanta was home to 58 of the 191 schools flagged by the state Board of Education in early 2010 for further investigation. Shortly after the results of that inquiry were released, then-Governor Sonny Perdue appointed a team of special investigators to the case for a more in-depth look at what appeared to be a systemic problem within APS, as well as to determine if the district had been covering up or withholding information about possible cheating.
“It was like a runaway train at times; you were just constantly on the move. It was very interesting work though,” Mowatt said of the investigation. “It was a lot of billable hours.”
Mowatt’s first task was document review — and with more than 800,000 documents looked at by the final tally, this was no small undertaking. The labor was divided up with the other firm working on the investigation, Balch & Bingham LLP, which organized all of the documents into a database. As the investigation went on, Mowatt was paired up with agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to help conduct interviews.
Ware started out by working with the statistics from the GOSA erasure analysis. They had to make sure that the numbers from that report were accurate and could be reproduced. (“In my life I never thought I would actually need the statistics class I took in high school and college, but I actually drew upon that knowledge,” she said.) That process took about eight weeks. After that, Ware oversaw a GBI team doing interviews in the field, questioned experts involved in the earlier state-requested investigation and spoke with APS administrators and staff.
“Teacher after teacher after principal talked about how they were intimidated by administrators or they were threatened with their job. It’s the stuff novels are made of. People described it to me like working for the mafia,” Ware said. “I just couldn’t imagine an educational system operating that way.”
The last part of the job for Ware, Mowatt and the other attorneys was contributing to the final report, which was released on July 5 of this year. The investigators found that 44 of 56 schools examined had cheated; 178 APS teachers and principals were implicated, and 38 of the principals were found to be responsible for or directly involved in cheating. The cover letter of the report asserted “organized and systemic wrongdoing in APS well before the administration of the 2009 CRCT.” The special investigators concluded that unrealistic targets, an emphasis on test results and public praise and a district-wide culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation let to the cheating.
“I was pretty saddened to see the lengths that people had to go to, basically to keep their jobs,” Mowatt said. “It’s amazing the emphasis on having to teach to the tests… but at the same time, people were taking these same tests all over the state and did not have the need to resort to cheating. The whole thing was very much systemic. It didn’t just come from nowhere; it started at the top, even if it wasn’t a specific instruction.”
Shortly after the report was released, APS Interim Superintendent Errol Davis sent a letter to all APS employees named in the report asking them to resign or be fired. More than 80 of the educators confessed to cheating, but only about 30 tendered their resignations by the deadline. The rest are on paid administrative leave and could face one of three penalties: criminal prosecution, potential job loss and potential certification loss.
Neither Ware nor Mowatt will be involved in any potential prosecution or hearings before the Professional Standards Commission on this matter. Next on the docket for both of them is a similar probe, albeit on a smaller scale, of the Dougherty County School System.
“If I could take away something from this, it wouldn’t be a legal skill – it would be a lesson on leadership. As a leader, you’ve got to surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth. I think that part of what happened at Atlanta Public Schools is that everyone got caught up in the success story and nobody wanted to question that,” Ware said. “At least nobody on the inside wanted to question that.”
Kathleen Poe Ross