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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.'

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Among many shocking revelations, the report details "changing parties" where teachers used razor blades to cut security plastic around tests and used lighters to fuse the plastic seams back together after changing scores. It also documented intimidation of teachers by administrators, including one case where a teacher was told to get under a table at a meeting after raising questions.

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"[F]ear of termination and ridicule in faculty and principals meetings drove numerous educators to cross ethical lines," the report states.

Governor Perdue's decision to investigate the allegations was met with criticism from people who thought the move would only hurt a city school system where three-quarters of the students are black and poor. Others questioned Perdue's motives.

"There were a lot of people who thought this was a witch hunt, that Governor Perdue was doing this because he didn't believe poor African-American children could learn," says Bert Brantley, Perdue's former spokesman. "But his point was that it's the people who were doing the cheating who don't believe kids can achieve, because they're not letting them do it on their own, they're changing answers because they don't believe it's possible."

"Everybody wanted to believe that the kids in Atlanta were really turning a corner after a long period of not succeeding, so there's the real tragedy," says Mr. Brantley. "Those kids have been cheated and they've been robbed."

Were top levels involved?

One open question is how high the conspiracy went in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) system. The report points to at least one instance where the superintendent's office buried an internal report that seemed to support some of the allegations.

"Dr. Hall and her administration emphasized test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics," the report states. "Dr. Hall either knew or should have known cheating and other misconduct was occurring in the APS system."

Hall, who in a farewell address to her staff in June acknowledged improprieties but blamed them on other administrators, has denied any wrongdoing.

"Dr. Hall steadfastly denies that she, her staff, or the vast majority of APS teaching and administrative professionals knew or should have known of any allegedly widespread cheating," Richard Deane, Hall's attorney, wrote in a statement.

But for the Atlanta cheating scandal to serve as a guide post for a national reform movement built on high-stakes testing, unresolved questions about the role of administrators in the conspiracy must be answered, says Professor Scafidi.

"The virtue of a prosecution would be to uncover the truth about what administrators did and did not do," he says.

Whether it was criminal for teachers and principals to deny struggling students tutoring and other help by giving them passing grades on tests they failed will ultimately be determined by prosecutors.

But incoming interim superintendent Errol Davis said Tuesday that his office will take immediate action against those named in the report.


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