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Jury Finds 11 Atlanta Educators Guilty in Cheating Trial

Atlanta-cheating-school-verdict-blog.jpgBy Corey Mitchell and Denisa Superville

Eleven former Atlanta public school teachers and administrators were convicted of racketeering Wednesday for their roles in a widespread cheating scandal and face up to 20 years in prison, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Jurors in Fulton County, Ga., Superior Court found that the educators conspired to artificially inflate test scores by changing answers or guiding students to fill in the correct responses on a 2009 state test.

One defendant, a teacher, was acquitted of all charges.

Because bonuses and raises were awarded to the educators based on the test scores, prosecutors charged the educators with violating the state's RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act by engaging in a massive criminal conspiracy. It's a criminal statute that law enforcement typically uses to prosecute those with ties to organized crime.

The jurors had to decide if the educators were, in fact, part of a vast scheme, committed lesser felonies, or, as defense attorneys argued, were merely pawns in a scheme masterminded by their former supervisors. The educators face sentencing next week.

Several of the defendants were also convicted of other felonies, including theft, influencing witnesses, and false statements and writings.

The judge ordered 10 of the convicted educators immediately jailed. One of the educators, who is pregnant, remains free on bond because she is close to her delivery date.

The cheating allegations and trial have loomed over the 50,000-student district for nearly six years, affecting everything from enrollment to employee morale.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered the alleged cheating while reporting on abnormal test-score increases. That triggered a state investigation that found an unusual number of erasures on state tests at several APS schools.

The newspaper has a breakdown on all the defendants and convictions.

Prosecutors argued that the federal government's mandate for improved test scores and former Superintendent Beverly Hall's call for better results were at the core of the alleged conspiracy. Hall, who resigned after the scandal broke in 2011, offered cash bonuses to educators at schools that met achievement targets.

The investigation led to indictments of 35 Atlanta educators who, prosecutors said, changed answers on student tests because of the pressure to boost test scores. Many of the educators reached plea agreements in exchange for their cooperation with prosecutors.

Prosecutors pegged Hall as the conspiracy's ringleader, but her failing health kept her from ever standing trial. She died of breast cancer March 2, soon after the testimony ended.

The Atlanta case sparked national debate over the reliance on standardized test scores. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the stakes have never been higher for educators: Schools with persistently low scores face penalties, which can include removing the principal and staff.

"The Atlanta situation was a real wakeup call," said Gregory Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina. "It shocked people to see how pervasive cheating was on school tests ... forced people around the country to take note of the problem."

Cizek testified as a prosecution witness during the cheating trial.

"We thought education was going to be immune to the possibilities of cheating," he said. "It's regrettable that it took something like what happened in Atlanta to focus attention on this."

In the last five years, the Massachusetts-based National Center for Fair & Open Testing has documented cases of cheating in 40 states, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense schools and 60 ways in which adults can manipulate test scores, said Robert Schaeffer, the organization's public education director.

"School districts know when this is going on, and they know, if it is going on, they probably can't hide from it," said James Wollack, a University of Wisconsin professor and test-security expert.

Schaeffer said an emphasis on security was one of the lessons that districts learned from the case. But he said state and federal officials have not addressed what he sees as the underlying reasons for the cheating—the overuse and misuse of standardized tests and the high stakes, including job security and bonuses, attached to them. He hopes the verdict will open a conversation about the root cause of the cheating problem. 

"The lessons learned were about test security," Schaeffer said. "The lessons not widely learned have to do with why cheating occurred and why, no matter how much test security you impose, there will be successful attempts to circumvent it."

Photo: Former Deerwood Academy Assistant Principal Tabeeka Jordan is led to a holding cell after a jury found her guilty in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial on April 1 in Atlanta. Jordan and 10 other former Atlanta Public Schools educators accused of participating in a test-cheating conspiracy were convicted Wednesday of racketeering charges. 
—Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
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