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.'

Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal & Constitution/AP
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.

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.

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.

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.

"[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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