Trial To Begin In Atlanta Public Schools' Cheating Scandal
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's taken almost two years, but Atlanta prosecutors say they've gathered enough evidence to go after 12 educators accused of manipulating student test scores. Originally 35 were indicted, but more than half took plea deals. Rose Scott from member station WABE in Atlanta reports that a trial is finally getting underway on what was described as the biggest cheating scandal in American education.
ROSE SCOTT, BYLINE: It's been three years since Georgia's governor, Nathan Deal, announced the findings of a state-ordered investigation into cheating within the Atlanta Public School system.
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GOVERNOR NATHAN DEAL: We found cheating in 44 of the 56 schools we examined. There were 38 principals of those 56 schools found to be responsible for or directly involved in cheating.
SCOTT: Based on those findings, it took nearly two years for Atlanta prosecutors to gather enough evidence to indict 35 school employees, and that included former superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall. Standing before a horde of reporters and flashing cameras in March of 2013, Atlanta's District Attorney Paul Howard addressed the media.
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PAUL HOWARD: What we are asking is that the attorneys and the defendants that they would turn themselves in at the Fulton County Jail on Tuesday, and I believe Tuesday's April the 2.
SCOTT: At that same press conference an Atlanta parent, Justina Collins, said the indictment was necessary because educators betrayed students, and that included her daughter.
JUSTINA COLLINS: I have a 15-year-old now who is behind in achieving her goal of becoming what she wants to be when she graduates. It's been hard trying to help her catch up.
SCOTT: Back then, Collins's daughter, Juwanna Guffie, was a student at Cascade Elementary School located in southwest Atlanta.
JUWANNA: This happened when I was in the fifth grade, and now I'm in the eighth doing good. But I still got to deal with this for the rest of my life, and I still got to remember that I was in this cheating scandal at my old school.
SCOTT: Atlanta prosecutors must prove that students' answers on standardized tests were changed after the fact by erasing wrong answers to correct ones. The motives, prosecutors say, included financial reward as the incentive and a culture of intimidation. Teachers and some principals feared losing their jobs. As Atlanta's cheating scandal made headlines across the nation, it rekindled the debate over standardized testing. Leah Ward Sears is Georgia's former chief justice of the state's Supreme Court.
LEAH WARD SEARS: You know, it calls into question not only the viability of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, but also the ethics of our educators, you know. And how far are you willing to go to sacrifice quality education?
SCOTT: Under the No Child Left Behind Act, students needed pass standardized tests to move on to the next grade. Prosecutors say pressure to achieve high test scores from then superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall and other district executives came down to principals, teachers and even testing coordinators. All of the defendants are being tried at once, and all are facing racketeering charges under RICO laws. Meanwhile, only months into her term as the new school chief, Dr. Meria Carstarphen says she recognizes it will take time to regain the community's confidence. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say that under the No Child Left Behind Act, students must pass standardized tests to move on to the next grade. In fact, the law sets consequences for schools whose students fail to show improvement on such tests, not for the students themselves.]
MERIA CARSTARPHEN: Right now we have more than enough information, both from the research that was provided by the district attorney to the district, you know. If everybody can get on the right path, we'll be able to push through this and really plan for a more successful future.
SCOTT: Legal experts expect that it could take three to six months for a verdict. For NPR News, I'm Rose Scott in Atlanta.
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Correction Sept. 29, 2014
We incorrectly say that under the No Child Left Behind Act, students must pass standardized tests to move on to the next grade. In fact, the law sets consequences for schools whose students fail to show improvement on such tests, not for the students themselves.