Eleven former teachers in Atlanta’s public school system each face up to 20 years in prison after being convicted Wednesday on racketeering charges for their role in one of the largest cheating scandals in U.S. history.
The convictions bring an end to the sad, sordid saga of Atlanta Public Schools, which earned praise as some of the most rapidly-improving in the nation until a state investigation exposed systematic cheating on standardized tests.
Prosecutors described the convictions as a victory for Atlanta’s children.
“We’ve been fighting for the children in our community, particularly those children who were deprived by this cheating scandal,” Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said, according to CNN.
For most of the 2000s, Atlanta schools were showered with praise for making rapid gains in test scores. From 2002 to 2009, the district’s reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (a federal standardized test) grew faster than in any other urban area. In 2009, Superintendent Beverly Hall was honored as the country’s Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators.
That same year, however, the charade collapsed. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation noted statistically unlikely shifts in the district’s test scores, including massive surges and drops from year to year at some schools. This in turn prompted a state investigation that discovered the existence of a districtwide conspiracy to cheat on tests, mostly by altering students’ answers after they’d finished their exams. More than 40 schools were found to have had some cheating, and close to 200 personnel were implicated.
Testimony during the trial drove home how widespread the corruption was. One witness talked about how teachers would attend “cheating parties” where they would eat fish and grits while changing answers on tests.
The convicted teachers attorneys claimed during the trial that the racketeering charges used to prosecute them were a severe abuse of state power, and argued they were the victims of higher-ups, including Superintendent Hall, who created a “culture of fear” that demanded immediate increases in test scores and threatened to fire those who thought of reporting misconduct.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, painted the teachers as selfish individuals more concerned with collecting performance bonuses than with educating their students.
Hall consistently claimed to be totally unaware of the cheating committed by her subordinates, though the state’s investigation found that if she didn’t know, she should have. A final verdict on her role will never be reached, as she died of breast cancer a month ago without ever being put on trial.
For opponents of widespread standardized testing, the scandal in Atlanta serves as a warning about what can happen when the desire to perform on tests surpasses the higher goal of educating students.
The convicted teachers face a maximum of 20 years in prison, though their sentences will likely come out to less than that. Their sentencing is still several weeks away.
Their convictions vindicate the decision made by more than 20 of the teachers’ former colleagues, who took plea deals after being charged two years ago.
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