3 Dozen Indicted in Atlanta Cheating Scandal

Posted: March 30, 2013 by Rizwan Riyad in News, U.S
Tags: , ,

Beverly Hall (center), the former superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, is accused of being a key conspirator in a massive cheating scandal. Investigations into the case began when reports showed that some children’s test scores were statistically improbable.

A grand jury on Friday indicted Beverly L. Hall, the former superintendent powerhouse of the Atlanta School District, on racketeering and other charges, bringing a dramatic new chapter to one of the largest cheating scandals in the country.

The grand jury also indicted 34 teachers and administrators in addition to Dr. Hall, who resigned in 2011 just before results of an investigation into the scandal were released. The panel recommended $7.5 million bond for Dr. Hall, who could face up to 45 years in prison.

In a list of 65 charges against the educators that includes influencing witnesses, theft by taking, conspiracy and making false statements, Fulton County prosecutors painted a picture of a decade-long conspiracy that involved awarding bonuses connected to improving scores on theCriterion-Referenced Competency Tests, the state’s main test of core academic subjects for elementary and middle schools, and a culture where, in some schools, cheating was an acceptable way to get them.

“Prosecutors allege the 35 named defendants conspired to either cheat, conceal cheating or retaliate against whistle-blowers in an effort to bolster C.R.C.T. scores for the benefit of financial rewards associated with high test scores,” according to the indictment.

Dr. Hall has consistently said she did not know about the cheating. She was not immediately available for comment.

Among the list were 6 principals, 2 assistant principals, 14 teachers, 6 testing coordinators, a school improvement specialist and executives in the human resources department and the school resource team. All defendants have been ordered to turn themselves in by Tuesday, the district attorney’s office announced at a news conference.

Paul L. Howard Jr., the district attorney, said that under Dr. Hall’s leadership, there was “a single-minded purpose, and that is to cheat.”

“She is a full participant in that conspiracy,” he said. “Without her, this conspiracy could not have taken place, particularly in the degree it took place.”

Starting in the early 2000s, Atlanta school leaders reported impressive results: Some of the poorest elementary schools with chronically low scores were suddenly getting better grades than wealthier suburban schools.

A state investigation began in 2009 after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found steep, unexplainable rises in student test scores. The newspaper compared entire grades of students’ scores from one year to the next and found that many had improved so much that statisticians said it all but proved that cheating was responsible.

At Peyton Forest Elementary School, for example, students went from among the bottom performers statewide to among the best over the course of a year. The odds of such an improvement were less than one in a billion, statisticians told the newspaper.

In July 2011, the state’s special investigators issued a scathing 800-page report. It said cheating had occurred in 44 schools and involved 178 educators — about 3 percent of the school system’s employees — including 38 principals. Teachers operated under a “culture of fear” that pressured them to cheat to improve test scores or face punishment from supervisors, the report said. Altering scores on standardized tests became so common, the report said, that one school held pizza parties to correct wrong answers.

The cheating began as early as 2001 and lasted a decade, the report said.

Investigators laid blame for the biggest standardized-test cheating scandal in the country’s history on the superintendent, Dr. Hall, who led the 50,000-student school system from 1999 until her resignation in 2011. Dr. Hall, who was hailed as National Superintendent of the Year in 2009 for her role in making Atlanta’s once-failing urban school district a model of improvement, had “emphasized test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics,” the report said.

The report asserted that Dr. Hall, while not tied directly to cheating or the direct target of a subpoena, tried to contain damaging information and did not do enough to investigate allegations, especially after 2005, when “clear and significant” warnings were raised. As superintendent, she received hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses tied to bogus improvements in test scores.

In a 2011 interview with The New York Times, Dr. Hall said that people under her had allowed cheating but that she never had.

“I can’t accept that there is a culture of cheating,” she said. “What these 178 are accused of is horrific, but we have over 3,000 teachers.”

Most of the accused teachers have appeared before a tribunal that decides whether or not to suspend their contract. Of the 178 educators implicated in the report, most have been dismissed or have resigned, a school system spokesman said. Twenty-one educators have been reinstated, and three are appealing their dismissals.

Atlanta is hardly the only school district to grapple with a widespread cheating scandal. In Memphis, a former assistant principal who was also a guidance counselor was charged with helping teachers in three states cheat on licensing tests. In El Paso, school administrators were charged last year with not only manipulating test scores but also preventing low-performing students from showing up for the tests. And in Great Neck, N.Y., in 2011, a group of students with low test scores were accused of paying classmates to take the SAT or ACT in their place.

The Atlanta scandal gained national attention because of the vast number of people implicated and the tenacity of Fulton County prosecutors, who pursued the case for years and waited until this week to bring criminal charges, right before the statute of limitations on crucial charges expired in April. In 2010, Mr. Howard, the district attorney, appointed two special prosecutors to investigate test tampering.

“The Atlanta situation was so widespread and so obviously troubled,” said John Fremer, the president of Caveon Test Security, a forensic data analysis firm hired by investigators to analyze Atlanta’s test results. “Every professional who looked at the data could see things were so wrong.”

After the cheating scandal, the Atlanta Public Schools system opened special remedial classes for students who might have been affected, at a potential cost of $6.4 million.

The school system has spent $2.5 million investigating teachers accused of cheating, including hiring private lawyers for the tribunals, said Stephen Alford, a spokesman. He said the city had also spent millions of dollars more on paying salaries to accused teachers while they waited for their hearings.

Erroll B. Davis Jr., the current superintendent, said steps have been taken to prevent cheating in the future, including an anonymous hot line for reporting ethics violations, an annual ethics training program for all employees and new safeguards for test security. He said “95 percent of our teachers” were not implicated.

“This indictment is a legal matter between the D.A.′s office and the people named on the indictment,” he said. “We will continue to focus on our students.”

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