Eleven Atlanta public school educators will be sentenced later this month to as much as 20 years in prison after a jury on Wednesday found them guilty of racketeering in a massive test-cheating scandal involving at least 44 schools and 178 school system employees. After a nearly six-month trial, the former teachers, administrators and one school principal were found guilty of erasing incorrect answers or telling students the correct answers in order to secure cash bonuses and promotions, according to Reuters.
The trial underscores the high-stakes nature of standardized testing in American public school systems. The scandal was exposed after the Atlanta Journal Constitution began examining how Atlanta-area students managed to significantly increase their test scores starting in 2009. The school system uses the statewide Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.
“People know that the test scores are flawed for a variety of reasons and that they cannot be relied on as the sole or primary factor to make high-stakes decisions,” Robert A. Schaeffer, the public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, told the New York Times.
Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered an investigation into the suspicious rise in scores for Atlanta-areas public school students. Findings from the investigation released in 2011 found widespread cheating in the school district. In one instance, a principal wore gloves as she altered test sheets to avoid leaving fingerprints.
District Superintendent Beverly L. Hall, a former Newark school superintendent who died from breast cancer last month, was accused by investigators of sowing a culture of fear and retaliation among administrators that allowed cheating to take place for years. Hall maintained her innocence and said the actions of 178 district educators doesn’t reflect on the more than 3,000 teachers in the system.
Nevertheless, a grand jury indicted Hall and 34 other district employees for complicity in the crime. Most of them reached plea agreements, but a dozen chose to go to trial. Only one of the defendants that chose to go to trial was exonerated. Former elementary school teacher Dessa Curb walked free.
“I’m thankful to God that it turned out well for me, but I’m very upset about the others,” Curb told reporters on Wednesday.
“Our entire effort in this case was simply to get our community to stop and take a look at our educational system,” District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr. said. “I think because of the decision of this jury today that people will stop. I think people will stop, and they will make an assessment of our educational system.”