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Atlanta cheating scandal moves to the courtroom (+video)

Prosecutors charge that 35 teachers and administrators, right to the top, inflated student test scores by erasing incorrect answers, telling children to change their answers, or coaching students on the answers in advance of the test.

Prosecutors on Monday outlined the case against a dozen former principals, teachers, and administrators accused of orchestrating a massive cheating conspiracy in 2009 in Atlanta public schools, as the high-profile trial got under way.

Prosecutors had brought charges against 35 individuals in the case, one of the most sweeping and widespread cases of cheating to come to light in US public education. Most of those individuals have pleaded guilty and won't go to trial. According to the charges, educators allegedly used a variety of schemes to inflate students' test scores, including erasing incorrect answers, telling children to change their answers, and opening sealed exams ahead of time to coach students on the answers.

It's a case that has received widespread attention both because of the nature of the charges and the fact that it seemed to have emanated from the very top – former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall is one of the defendants, though her trial has been delayed while she deals with a health issue  – as well as the questions it raises about the possible negative incentives from the culture of high-stakes standardized testing.

The educators in Atlanta were hoping for cash bonuses and promotion as a result of increased test scores, and Superintendent Hall was named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators in 2009. “This says that something about our incentive system and our accountability system is way off,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the Monitor when the charges in Atlanta were first announced.

At the trial on Monday, prosecutor Fani Willis told jurors that, in the coming weeks, they will hear from parents, students, and current and former teachers, who will describe the high-pressure culture fostered by Hall and answer the question of "Why does this matter?"

The biggest losers, Ms. Willis noted, were the students. Some lost out on extra instruction and supplemental services that they were entitled to, due to their inflated test scores, she said. Others had teachers give them the answers when they took tests.

"Children learned just terrible morals," Willis said. "They were taught cheating was a way to succeed."

Parents who questioned their children's results were told they were accurate, she added. "Parents, they had false impressions of what their children were doing," Willis  said. "So at crucial and critical times, they lost their ability to help their children."

Hall has denied having any knowledge of the conspiracy, but Willis told jurors Monday that Hall tried to cover up the cheating and had some documents shredded. And many educators have said that the culture she created – laser-focused on test results and driven by fear – rewarded cheating.  In her decade as superintendent, she replaced 90 percent of the principals.

The Atlanta scandal, uncovered as a result of whistleblowers and wiretaps, remains one of the largest cheating scandals in the US to date, but others have also come to light in recent years, including in Ohio and Washington, D.C.

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