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Florida and Georgia: A Tale of Test Cheating Scandals in Two States

Disparity: Convictions in Atlanta, Impunity in Miami-Dade Schools.

On Wednesday, an Atlanta jury convicted 11 teachers on racketeering charges, with mixed verdicts on theft and false statement charges, in connection with the massive test cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools.

The defendants, including teachers, a principal and other administrators, were accused of falsifying and altering test results to collect bonuses (incentive funds) and/or to keep their jobs.

One teacher was acquitted and 21 others took plea deals. The 35 educators were indicted in March 2013 by a grand jury.

Prosecutors claimed and successfully argued that the educators conspired to cheat on standardized tests as far back as 2005 after feeling pressure from school district officials to meet federal and local testing standards.

The educators said the pressure came from their supervisors, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall, who died of breast cancer last month.

Hall, who was superintendent for more than a decade, and her lawyer had argued she was too sick to stand trial.

In their report, investigators wrote that Hall “created a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” that allowed cheating to go on for years.

Hall maintained that she hadn’t done anything wrong, but resigned during the investigation.

Jurors deliberated for more than eight days. The racketeering charges could carry up to a 20-year prison sentence, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Sentencing is scheduled for April 8, 2015.

This is a huge story and absolutely the biggest development in American education law since forever,” said University of Georgia law professor Ron Carlson. “It has to send a message to educators here and broadly across the nation. Playing with student test scores is very, very dangerous business.”

Logically, Mr. Carlson seems correct as the former Superintendent of El Paso, Texas schools, Lorenzo Garcia, was sent to federal prison, and five teachers and four principals were arrested in Philadelphia over the past year for test cheating with more arrests expected.

Yet, logic is being defied in Miami-Dade County, Florida, as citizen journalist and school library media specialist Trevor Colestock uncovered a massive test cheating scandal, Adobegate, at Miami Norland Senior High School; his findings verified by the Final Miami-Dade OIG Report; and the strange firing of one teacher and suspension of the other who was equally involved.

Mrs. Muchnick returned to Norland High in early January 2014.

To date, the teachers involved, Mr. Emmanuel Fleurantin and Mrs. Brenda Muchnick, were never arrested, charged, booked, and/or prosecuted as the State Attorney, the Florida Attorney General, and Governor Rick Scott refused to acknowledge this massive test cheating scandal and the almost $250,000 paid out through federal and state incentives to the faculty for an “A” grade for the 2011-12 school year tainted by cheating.

Each teacher at Miami Norland Senior High School received $1730.41.

Though the teachers got paid, the big winners from Norland’s academic successes tainted by cheating were school and district administrators: Reginald Lee went from being an assistant principal over the vocational department in which the cheating took place to the principal of Charles Drew Middle School and then Norland in November 2012; Luis Solano went from being the principal at Norland to the Associate Superintendent, Curriculum & Instruction at Collier County Public Schools in Naples; Nikolai Vitti went from being the Assistant Superintendent of the Education Transformation Office (ETO) at M-DCPS to the Chief Academic Officer of M-DCPS and then became the Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville; and Superintendent Alberto Carvalho became the Florida and National Superintendent of the Year shortly thereafter.

Also, the Florida Department of Education recently released information that revealed that Miami Norland SHS had 96 FCAT/EOC test invalidations over the past three school years.

Interestingly, 25 other public schools, all high schools, had more test invalidations that Norland, with 20 of the schools being in Miami-Dade, most of them in the Education Transformation Office.

The breakdown for the 26 schools, all high schools, in the graphic: 21 from Miami-Dade (96 at Norland-275 invalidations at North Miami Senior); 2 from Broward (97, 134 invalidations); 2 from Palm Beach (99, 100 invalidations); and 1 from Duval (110 invalidations).

For more information on how this information was obtained, please read pages 38-40 of the Test Score Validation Process manual proffered by Pearson.

Furthermore, the FBI declined to investigate as they deferred to the USDOE OIG who dismissed Colestock’s complaints and took no action.

Simply put, Florida and federal officials, unlike former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, passed the buck.

Perhaps politics played a part as Florida is, and has been, the epicenter of standardized testing since instituting the first high school graduation test in 1976, and reports of test cheating undermine the politics and profitability of standardized testing.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, a Common Core and standardized test proponent, is in lock-step with President Barack Obama on these issues.

During his tenure as Florida governor, Bush expanded testing significantly, with lucrative contracts for testing and scoring going to Pearson, while creating the school grading system through his A+ Plan.

Beverly Hall served as the Atlanta Public Schools superintendent for more than a decade and was named Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators in 2009. She was credited with raising student test scores and graduation rates, particularly among poor and minority students.

However, the award quickly lost its luster and was tarnished as the cheating scandal began to unfold when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that some scores were statistically improbable.

Likewise, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho was named the state and national Superintendent of the Year over the past year and lauded for the same accomplishments in test scores and graduation rates.

Could it be that Adobegate and high number of test invalidations on the FCAT and/or EOC exams over the past three school years went unanswered and unpunished to protect standardized testing and spare Mr. Carvalho, who like Beverly Hall is close to President Obama, from going down in flames like Ms. Hall and Mr. Garcia by the state and federal governments respectively?

A reasonable person may assume that Miami-Dade County Public Schools “created a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” when it chose to transfer and retaliate against Mr. Colestock for reporting, exposing, and publishing articles about the test cheating while returning Mrs. Muchnick to Norland and never seeking her or Mr. Fleurantin’s prosecution.

The implied message to teachers in Miami-Dade seems to be “keep your mouth shut about test cheating lest you want to end up like Mr. Colestock.”

The lack of inaction by the federal and state governments seem to condone M-DCPS’s actions and test cheating in general.

Like Atlanta, the victims in Miami-Dade County, Florida, besides the taxpayer, are low-income minority (mostly black) school children who are being denied the remedial help they need as false and misleading test scores suggest otherwise.

Where are the talking heads and advocacy groups who decry events in Brooklyn and Ferguson when it comes to test cheating in Atlanta and Miami? Why are they silent on these issues?

Question: Why is Florida rewarding test cheaters while Georgia, Texas and Pennsylvania are punishing test cheaters?

RELATED ARTICLE: Whistleblower Principal, Adell Cothorne, on the Atlanta Cheating Verdict