Prison Time Begins for Atlanta Educators Convicted in Cheating Scandal
Two former educators in the Atlanta Public Schools, convicted in the district's test cheating scandal in 2015, are now beginning their prison sentences, after exhausting all their appeals.
They are the first to go to prison out of 11 teachers and administrators found guilty of a conspiracy to boost student scores on standardized tests.
The two women, Tamara Cotman and Angela Williamson, turned themselves in at the Fulton County Jail on Tuesday. Williamson's attorney told Education Week that his client "is in good spirts and resolved to maintain her innocence." Cotman, in a news conference Tuesday said, "I was wrongly convicted, and today I will be sent to prison wrongly," according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Cotman was a regional administrator for the district and Williamson taught 4th grade at Dobbs Elementary School.
State investigators said that Cotman threatened educators with their jobs if they didn't boost scores by "any means possible." As for Williamson, she reportedly prompted students to change incorrect answers during the test, and "threatened students by telling them they would have to repeat the 4th grade if they ever told of the cheating."
Both had appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which upheld their convictions. The Georgia Supreme Court declined to review the case, and in early October the U.S. Supreme Court did the same. The educators had been free on bond pending their appeals. Cotman was sentenced to three years in prision, Williamson faces up to two years.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, whose office prosecuted the case, said he expects both women will ultimately serve less than a year. He pointed out that they turned down plea bargains that would have kept them out of prison.
"There's no doubt that all of this could have been avoided," he said, adding that his office wanted the defendants to "accept some responsiblity" and are "not "happy or elated" that the women are behind bars..
Nearly 200 Atlanta educators were initially linked to systematic cheating, either by guiding students to correct answers or erasing and changing answers after students turned in their tests. Prosecutors said that the educators were under enormous pressure from then-Superintendent Beverly Hall to boost test scores in the high-poverty district. Hall was also charged in the case but died from cancer before going to trial.
The cheating came to light after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on the suspicious test scores.
Of the 11 educators who were ultimately convicted, Cotman and Williamson were the only ones who appealed directly to the higher courts. Two others accepted plea bargains, and the remaining 7 defendants are planning on asking for a new trial. As of now, that trial date has not been set.
Photo credit: Dobbs Elementary School in Atlanta was the epicenter of a 2007-08 cheating scandal that sunk the careers of dozens of educators and altered the education of tens of thousands of students. Swikar Patel/Education Week
See Education Week's coverage of the Atlanta test-cheating scandal