Atlanta Educators Sentenced to Prison

Back to May 2015 Ed Reporter

Atlanta Educators Sentenced to Prison

After a six-months-long trial with testimony from 162 witnesses, an Atlanta jury found 11 former Atlanta Public Schools teachers, principals, and administrators guilty of the felony of racketeering for “conspiring to change student answers on standardized tests.”

handcuffsThe convicted educators changed answers on state tests in order to “artificially inflate scores to satisfy federal benchmarks” that are mandated by No Child Left Behind law.

The former educators, who faced prison sentences ranging from five to twenty years, apparently cheated in order to gain recognition, to receive bonuses and raises, or to keep their jobs.

Suspicious improvements in student test scores piqued the interest of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters who initially investigated. Eventually, a “state-commissioned report found organized, widespread cheating.” That report found as many as 180 employees were complicit in the cheating. Methods of cheating included teachers engaging in “cheating parties” at which wrong test answers were erased and replaced with correct answers.

Although 35 educators were originally indicted, 21 Atlanta educators had already reached plea deals with prosecutors after admitting to engaging in cheating. Some escaped prosecution by turning state’s evidence. The remaining twelve who were tried refused to make plea agreements.

One teacher said, “We considered [cheating] part of our jobs.”

Use Any Means Necessary

Illness prevented the woman at the center of the cheating scandal from facing trial. Beverly Hall, the former superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, died of breast cancer on March 2, 2015. Prosectors called Hall the “cheating conspiracy’s ringleader.”

Superintendent Beverly Hall was a star of the school reform movement and her “get tough” policies were originally credited for higher test scores. She fired teachers and principals who did not meet their standardized test score targets. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, “Hall inculcated an atmosphere that encouraged using any means necessary to achieve test-score targets.” This included cheating.

Parents were initially pleased when schools improved; then they were bitterly disappointed to find out that their children’s improved test scores were the result of cheating. Some students with good test scores actually needed remedial help but deficiencies weren’t discovered until after investigation of the scandal.

The education establishment tried to pass off improvements in achievement tests taken by students as being the result of the district’s emphasis on strict standards for teachers and for students. Atlantans were disappointed to find out what really occurred was mostly cheating and ensuing unfounded hype. For a time, the scheme successfully fooled citizens and was used to attract businesses to Atlanta.

Prison Sentences

Three former top school administrators were sentenced to three years in prison to be followed by seven years of probation. Another five educators will serve one- and two-year prison terms. Two cheaters who reached pre-sentencing agreements that included a promise not to appeal will avoid prison time. One such agreement will allow a former testing coordinator to spend weekends in jail for six months, followed by five years of probation.

Those convicted will also pay fines and participate in community service, some of which will include instructing inmates.

The convicted educators who plan to mount appeals remain free on bond.

One of the twelve who originally stood trial was acquitted of all charges.

When the sentences were handed down in April, there was “crying and sobbing” in the courtroom. The judge who oversaw the case says, “I think there were hundreds and thousands of kids who were lost in the schools. That’s what gets lost. Everyone’s crying, but this is not a victimless crime that occurred in this city.” He calls the widespread cheating “the sickest thing that’s ever happened in this town.” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 4-1-15; NPR.org, 4-14-15; Education Week, 4-17-15)