Standardized Test Cheating Scandal Lands 11 Atlanta Educators in Prison
Eleven Atlanta public school educators accused of conspiring to cheat on standardized tests were convicted on Apr. 1, 2015 of racketeering, a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. The same charge was used to prosecute the Gambino organized-crime family. Some of the defendants were convicted of additional offenses, meaning they could face up to 35 years behind bars.
During the trial, an expert testified that the odds of the numerous wrong-to-right erasures found on Atlanta’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test being innocent corrections were one in 284 septillion, 284 and 21 zeros. Because some schools’ true failure rates went unreported, grants for extra tutoring or other assistance for struggling students were not given.
The cheating scandal has cast a shadow over the city’s school district since the Atlanta Journal-Constitution began reporting on claims of testing irregularities in 2008. The newspaper recounted instances of teachers and test administrators changing students’ answers from wrong to right or giving them answers before or during tests, and gave one example of a teacher asking a student to alter the answers of three of her fellow students.
In the summer of 2011, a state report accused 178 Atlanta teachers and administrators, including 38 principals, of cheating on students’ standardized tests. The report detailed “organized and systemic misconduct” in at least 44 schools. At one school, teachers attended “weekend pizza parties” to correct students’ answers, and one principal wore gloves while going through answer sheets and changing student responses. In addition to school staff and leadership, Superintendent Beverly L. Hall, who received hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses triggered by Atlanta’s improved test results, was also given some of the blame, and was said to be encouraging educators to disobey testing regulations. Hall defended herself and the district, stating in 2011 that “What these 178 are accused of is horrific, but we have over 3,000 teachers.” She also questioned the anonymous allegations, blaming them on disgruntled employees. Hall had been named Superintendent of the Year in 2009.
Standardized test results are often used to reward and penalize teachers and administrators, which has led to much controversy in recent years. Test results are used to determine a school’s Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), a measure of success put in place by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), signed into law by President George W. Bush in Jan. 2002. However, under Superintendent Hall’s governance, Atlanta schools had to achieve higher results on standardized tests than otherwise required by AYP. The indictment stated that “principals and teachers were frequently told by Beverly Hall and her subordinates that excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated. When principals and teachers could not reach their targets, their performance was criticized, their jobs were threatened and some were terminated… The refusal of Beverly Hall and her top administrators to accept anything other than satisfying targets created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education.” The indictment said that by 2009, “cheating was taking place in a majority of [the district’s] 83 elementary and middle schools.”
Hall and 34 other Atlanta public school educators were indicted in Mar. 2013. Two of the defendants, including Hall, have since died of cancer, while 21 reached plea agreements to avoid going to trial. Of the remaining 12 who attempted to prove their innocence in court, one was found not guilty. The 11 who were convicted include teachers, school administrators, and test coordinators. After the guilty verdict was reached, they were immediately placed in handcuffs and led to holding cells to await sentencing. “I don’t like to send anybody to jail,” Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry W. Baxter stated, adding, “It’s not one of the things I get a kick out of. But they have made their bed, and they’re going to have to lie in it, and it starts today.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Ex-Educators Jailed in Atlanta Cheating Scandal Hoping for Bond,” ajc.com, Apr. 2, 2015
Alan Blinder, “Atlanta Educators Convicted in School Cheating Scandal,” nytimes.com, Apr. 1, 2015
Jenny Jarvie, “Atlanta Schools Cheating Scandal: 11 Educators Convicted of Racketeering,” latimes.com, Apr. 1, 2015
Cameron McWhirter, “Eleven Atlanta Educators Convicted in Cheating Scandal,” wsj.com, Apr. 1, 2015
Steve Osunsami and Ben Forer, “Atlanta Cheating: 178 Teachers and Administrators Changed Answers to Increase Test Scores,” abcnews.go.com, July 6, 2011
Valerie Strauss, “How and Why Convicted Atlanta Teachers Cheated on Standardized Tests,” washingtonpost.com, Apr. 1, 2015
Heather Vogell, “Atlanta Schools Soft on Cheats?,” ajc.com, Aug. 31, 2009
Michael Winerip, “Ex-Schools Chief in Atlanta Is Indicted in Testing Scandal,” nytimes.com, Mar. 29, 2013