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Atlanta cheating scandal: Should educators face jail for 'robbing' kids?

An 800-page report says at least 178 Atlanta teachers and principals cheated to raise student test scores. Some may face jail time, putting a new spin on the phrase 'high-stakes testing.'

By Staff writer / July 6, 2011

Gov. Nathan Deal speaks at a news conference on Tuesday in Atlanta. A probe has found that more than 78 percent of Atlanta schools examined by state investigators engaged in cheating on standardized tests.

Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal & Constitution/AP

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Atlanta

With Atlanta in the middle of an unprecedented teacher cheating scandal where at least 178 teachers and principals in more than half the city's elementary schools changed test answers in order to make themselves and the district look good, the looming question now is whether those educators could, or should, face jail time.

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Three county prosecutors are now perusing an 800-page report released Tuesday by Gov. Nathan Deal's office which describes how educators altered government documents and lied to investigators – crimes punishable by as many as 10 years in prison – in order to get bonuses, raise the district's profile, and pad the résumés of top administrators.

Dozens of other states have seen teacher cheating scandals in the last few years. But none has plumbed allegations as deeply as Georgia. The investigation began last year when then-Gov. Sonny Perdue threw out an internal school district investigation that downplayed allegations. Instead, he appointed special investigators to look into whether teachers and principals systematically changed test answers.

Following on reports of other cheating scandals in states nationwide, the scope and depth of the Atlanta cheating scandal has rocked the nation's educational community. It has renewed questions about the extent to which America's focus on high-stakes testing is causing educators to breach basic ethics to get ahead or even keep their jobs.

But a report that paints a picture of a school district that systematically cheated students, parents and taxpayers also leaves many unanswered questions about what really happened. The only way to answer some of those questions is through criminal or civil legal proceedings, experts say.

"Going this far with an investigation is unprecedented in the United States," says Benjamin Scafidi, an economics professor at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. "We are in uncharted waters."

Educators driven to 'cross ethical lines'

The report details a "culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation" that pushed teachers to cross ethical lines and cover up their involvement when confronted. Allegations about cheating go as far back as 2005, when the district began receiving national plaudits for what many saw as an amazing turnaround for thousands of poor, mostly African-American students. Superintendent Beverly Hall, who left the district last week, received the 2009 US Superintendent of the Year award in large part because of the district's improving test scores.

But there was allegedly a dark side to the city's educational turnaround. As newspapers have documented in many other school districts across the country, statistical anomalies began appearing, where student achievement scores spiked in one grade, only to fall dramatically in the next. One USA Today report, for example, found that trend in six states and the District of Columbia. In many cases, anomalies were outside of statistical probability, even possibility, according to testing experts.

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