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Atlanta Schools Cheating Trial Heads to Jury

Jurors in the Atlanta school district's test cheating case have begun deliberations in what is believed to be the longest and most complex academic misconduct trial in Georgia and U.S. history.

A dozen former Atlanta teachers and administrators are accused of conspiring to artificially inflate test scores to meet federal standards by changing answers or guiding students to fill in the correct responses on a 2009 state test.

The educators stand accused of violating the state's RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act by engaging in a massive criminal conspiracy to inflate scores on standardized tests. The prosecution said bonuses and salary raises were awarded based on test scores. If jurors find the defendants guilty, they could each face up to 20 years in jail.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered the alleged cheating while reporting on unusual improvements in test scores. The alleged conspiracy stretched across nearly 60 schools. Follow the AJC's coverage of the case and trial here.

The trial began in August with more than six weeks of jury selection. Testimony concluded in late February. Defense attorneys and prosecutors wrapped up closing arguments this week.

The educators have testified that they faced pressure from supervisors to erase wrong answers and help students during the tests to boost scores. The "federal government's mandate for better (test) scores and former Superintendent Beverly Hall's demand for even better results were at the core of the alleged conspiracy," the Associated Press reports.

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

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

The Atlanta case sparked national debate over the reliance on school test scores. In the six years since, similar cheating scandals have emerged in Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio.

In Atlanta, a grand jury indicted 35 educators in March 2013. Many reached plea agreements, served probation, paid fines and avoided jail time, in exchange for their cooperation with prosecutors.

In closing arguments this week, attorneys representing the remaining defendants accused prosecutors of overreaching: racketeering charges are usually reserved for gangsters with ties to organized crime.

The jurors must decide if the educators were, in fact, part of a vast criminal conspiracy, committed lesser felonies, or were merely pawns in a scheme masterminded by their former bosses and supervisors.

"I want you to send every one of these defendants—every one of these accused citizens—I want you to send them home for the right reason, and that is they didn't do anything wrong," said George Lawson, a defense attorney for a former district administrator, told jurors, according to television station WXIA. "They didn't commit any crimes. They did not do a thing but be an employee of APS and try to be good educators. That's all they did."

The AJC reports that it could take the jury "days, if not weeks, to reach a decision."

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