35 Educators Indicted in Atlanta

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35 Educators Indicted in Atlanta

In an aberration, or perhaps just the tip of the iceberg across the nation, 35 educators have been indicted in Atlanta for cheating on standardized tests. Charges include racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, and making false statements. Beverly L. Hall, the former district superintendent and a star of the school reform movement, was included in the sweep.

While Governor of Georgia, Sonny Perdue took persistent rumors and allegations about cheating in Atlanta schools very seriously. In 2010 he appointed two special prosecutors and a special investigator to conduct a criminal investigation into cheating on standardized tests. The Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) contributed to the investigation. They, and state education officials, found “extraordinary increases in test scores from one year to the next, along with a high number of erasures on answering sheets from wrong to right.” After years of lying and stonewalling, some educators finally began to tell the truth. Some are now state witnesses.

It is alleged that erasing parties were held to correct student tests and that score manipulation occurred. One teacher states that she and six other teachers “sat in a locked windowless room every afternoon during the week of state testing, raising students’ scores by erasing wrong answers and making them right.”

Retired Superintendent Hall, who was once Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s guest at the White House, was known for being a tough and intractable leader who demanded that her teachers and principals performed. Teachers whose classes did not meet standardized test targets were fired. “In her decade as superintendent, she replaced 90% of principals,” according to the New York Times (03-29-13).

“The indictment served as a resounding refutation of Hall’s assertions that Atlanta had found the secret formula that had long eluded educators elsewhere: how to get strong performances from poor, mostly minority students in decaying urban schools,” according to the AJC.

Hall earned more than $500,000 in bonuses over 10 years. The bonuses were partially tied to increased test scores. Bond for her release was originally $7.5 million, but was reduced somewhat. She faces up to 45 years in prison, if convicted. The current Atlanta superintendent of schools drives himself, but Hall incurred a $100,000-a-year district expense for a security and transportation detail.

“Hall inculcated an atmosphere that encouraged using any means necessary to achieve test-score targets, the indictment said, and then ‘publicly misrepresented the academic performance of schools throughout [Atlanta Public Schools],’” reported the AJC.

Also charged in the Grand Jury indictment are other administrators, principals, and teachers. According to the indictment, they “conspired to either cheat, conceal cheating or retaliate against whistle-blowers in an effort to bolster CRCT scores for the benefit of financial rewards associated with high test scores.” CRCT is the annual Georgia assessment, or Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

Cheating educators were highly motivated since at schools that met 70% of their annual target every employee received a bonus, as low as a few hundred dollars to over a thousand.

One of the special investigators said, “This is nothing but pervasive and rank thuggery.” The district attorney referred to “a single-minded purpose, and that is to cheat,” and said, referring to Hall specifically, “She is a full participant in that conspiracy. Without her, this conspiracy could not have taken place, particularly in the degree it took place.”

The prosecutor denounced “the crimes that have been committed against the children of the city of Atlanta.” Remedial assistance for students in need was not given because altered test scores showed they were doing well. Anecdotal evidence of students who were cheated out of an education was provided in the AJC. A mother who had concerns because her daughter received the lowest score on one reading examination, but later exceeded reading standards on the state achievement test, met with Superintendent Hall who assured her that her daughter “tested well.” The student is now in 9th grade, but “reads at a 5th grade level.”

Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers union blamed education reform for the criminal activity of educators. She told MSNBC, “We don’t condone cheating, but when you have high-stakes testing, which are one-shot deals that don’t tell you whether a child is going to fail or succeed, the whole setup in terms of No Child Left Behind was unfair to children, unfair to educators.” (04-01-2013)

The mantra in Atlanta under Hall’s reign was “No exceptions and no excuses.” The justice system should apply that same standard to those convicted of cheating students for personal gain. It is also hoped that all states will seek out and prosecute cheating by educators as seriously as Georgia is doing.
(Atlanta Journal Constitution, 03-29-2013)