Atlanta educators convicted of racketeering in test cheating scandal

A jury in Atlanta has found 11 teachers and administrators guilty of racketeering and other felony charges in what investigators found was a massive school test cheating scandal.

Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Former Atlanta Public Schools research team director Sharon Davis Williams is led away after a jury found her guilty in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial Wednesday. Williams and 10 other former Atlanta Public Schools educators were convicted of racketeering charges.

A jury in Atlanta has found 11 of 12 defendants in a massive school test cheating scandal guilty of racketeering and other charges.

The verdicts follow a five-month trial that came as the result of an investigation that began in 2011, targeting teachers, test coordinators, and other administrators charged with inflating scores on students' standardized tests. On some occasions, “erasure parties” were held to physically change answers on multiple-choice quizzes.

A state investigation had found a public “school system fraught with unethical behavior that included teachers and principals changing wrong answers on students' answer sheets and an environment where cheating for better test scores was encouraged and whistle blowers were punished.”

Investigators found that Atlanta schools Superintendent Beverly Hall and some of those who worked under her had created a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation … which created a conspiracy of silence and deniability” that in turn had permitted “cheating – at all levels – to go unchecked for years.”

The investigation focused on Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) scores for 2009.

Among the findings:

  • Cheating occurred at 44 of the 56 schools examined
  • 178 teachers and principals were involved
  • Cheating went back as far as 2001
  • In addition to CRCT cheating, misconduct also included record act violations, false statements, and document destruction
  • the primary cause of the cheating was “pressure to meet targets in the data-driven environment.”

The investigation concluded that thousands of children were harmed by the cheating by being denied remedial education because of their inflated test scores.

Of the 178 teachers and principals found to have been involved in the cheating scandal, 82 confessed to misconduct. Thirty-five were indicted by a grand jury, of whom 21 pleaded guilty to lesser charges – some testifying at the trial. Of the remaining 14, two died while awaiting trial, including Superintendent Hall.

Among other things, prosecutors presented evidence that bonuses and raises were awarded based on test scores.

Defense attorneys argued those convicted should remain free until sentencing because they don't have prior records, have community ties, and showed up to trial every day. However, only one was allowed to remain free on bond, a teacher expecting to give birth soon. The other 10 were immediately handcuffed and taken to jail.

"They are convicted felons as far as I'm concerned," said Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter. "They have made their bed and they're going to have to lie in it."

The scandal was a major blow to Atlanta.

“Before the cheating was exposed, the narrative of the Atlanta school system was it was a vastly-improving district that took a no-nonsense approach to teachers and administrators who did not meet its high academic standards. Its superintendent, Beverly Hall, won national awards. City leaders used the rising test scores to make the case to businesses that Atlanta was the place to be,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (which initially broke the story) reported Wednesday. “The narrative rapidly changed. Hall resigned amid the investigation. Abhorrent tales of cheating parties emerged. Dismayed parents wondered what their children really learned.”

When he released the results of the state investigation in 2011, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal explained the depth of the cost of such cheating.

“Nothing is more important to the future of our state than ensuring that today’s students receive a first-class education and integrity in testing is a necessary piece of the equation,” Governor Deal said. “When test results are falsified and students who have not mastered the necessary material are promoted, our students are harmed, parents lose sight of their child’s true progress, and taxpayers are cheated.”

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