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Atlanta Public Schools Under Fire

It's a tough time for Atlanta Public Schools. Criminal charges may be filed soon in connection with allegations of widespread cheating on statewide tests. The school board had to go to court to determine its leaders, and this week the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools sent in a team to evaluate the board and determine whether the district is doing enough to keep its accreditation.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The public school system in Atlanta is facing a crisis. The district is in the midst of a criminal investigation into allegations of widespread cheating on yearly progress tests given in 2009. School board infighting has raised questions about leadership. And this week, the district's accrediting agency has sent in a team to investigate the schools and their leaders.

NPR's Kathy Lohr has the story.

KATHY LOHR: The school system is dealing with a number of issues, none of them good. The state competency tests in question are supposed to measure students' academic progress. The question is whether teachers and administrators gave students the answers, or changed the test answers so more students would pass.

The tests showed an unusually high number of eraser marks, and officials are still trying to find out just who was responsible.

Mr. PAUL HOWARD (Fulton County District Attorney): I am encouraging anyone with specific knowledge of these allegations of test cheating to come forward now.

LOHR: Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard recently named two state investigators to the position of special assistant district attorney. He says they'll help pursue prosecutions in this high-profile case.

Mr. HOWARD: This team has presented my office with clear-cut, direct, eye-witnessed evidence that student tests were impermissibly altered by Atlanta public school employees.

LOHR: The Atlanta Journal Constitution has reported that numerous school employees have admitted they manipulated test scores. A spokesman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation says agents have conducted about 800 interviews since October, questioning some teachers and administrators more than once. It's a felony under state law to destroy or alter public documents, or to lie to state agents.

This week, a number of black ministers raised new questions about the investigation, and about a special grand jury that may be impaneled to consider indictments. The group says no teachers have ever faced criminal sanctions for cheating violations. And they say prosecutors are unfairly targeting teachers who may have caved in to the pressure to cheat because of the federal education standards they must meet. Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue denies the allegation.

Governor SONNY PERDUE (Republican, Georgia): We're not out to criminalize any educator, as long as they cooperate and are forthcoming with their testimony.

LOHR: Governor Perdue stressed the need for a broader investigation after the school district's own inquiry found no evidence of system-wide cheating. And he says investigators are not singling out teachers who come clean.

Gov. PERDUE: Cover up is the most heinous crime to me. If you're honest and forthcoming, I would plead for leniency.

LOHR: The district is also dealing with a nasty split among board members that led to a court battle to resolve leadership issues. Now the regional accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, known as SACS is looking into the drama.

Mr. MARK ELGART (President and CEO, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools SACS): There are substantive, significant, systemic problems here that need to be addressed.

LOHR: President and CEO of SACS, Mark Elgart, says the accreditation team is investigating mounting evidence that the board is not doing its job effectively, that it continues to be politically divided. He says the way the board behaved at a recent meeting shows how it's struggling to govern effectively.

Mr. ELGART: The board was engaged in a 10-hour or more board meeting and during that entire board meeting, they were focused on debating of who's in charge.

LOHR: A statement from the district says the board and administrators will do whatever's necessary to ensure accreditation is not lost. But the governor, the district attorney and the accrediting agency all say the biggest crime is that the job of educating thousands of students was ignored in favor of generating better test scores. That means kids who didn't know the material have not yet received the remedial help they need.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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