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Atlanta Educators Convicted in Test-Cheating Trial

Former Atlanta Public Schools School Research Team Director Tamara Cotman, center, is led to a holding cell after a jury found her guilty in the test-cheating trial on April 1 in Atlanta.
Former Atlanta Public Schools School Research Team Director Tamara Cotman, center, is led to a holding cell after a jury found her guilty in the test-cheating trial on April 1 in Atlanta.
—Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
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Eleven former Atlanta public school teachers and administrators are each facing up to 20 years in prison after they were convicted of racketeering Wednesday for their roles in a widespread cheating scandal that captivated the country for the apparent breadth and pervasiveness of the corruption within the school system.

The educators appeared stoic as Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter read their names, the charges against them, and the verdicts on Wednesday afternoon, in proceedings that were streamed over the Internet.

After deliberating for nearly eight days, the jury found that the educators, including former teachers, administrators, and testing coordinators, had conspired to artificially inflate test scores by changing answers or guiding students to fill in the correct responses on a 2009 Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, the state’s annual assessment.

One defendant, Dessa Curb, a former elementary school teacher, was acquitted of all charges. The guilty verdicts on charges other than racketeering—including theft, false statements and writing, and influencing witnesses—were mixed.

The judge ordered 10 of the convicted educators immediately jailed pending sentencing this month. One woman, Shani Robinson, who was convicted of conspiracy and making false statements, remains free on bond because she is pregnant and is close to her delivery date.

See list of full names and verdicts at the bottom of this story.

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. The criminal statute is typically used to prosecute those with ties to organized crime.

“The goal of the statute is to dismantle criminal enterprises and make sure that no one profits from it,” Morgan Cloud, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said in an interview with Education Week. “If a random teacher of his or her own initiative decides to change [test] answers, these are crimes that could be prosecuted by the state.”

After listening to nearly six months of testimony, 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.

Long Shadow

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

The district has been trying to move from under the glare of the national spotlight that has followed it since the scandal broke. A new superintendent, Meria J. Carstarphen, took over the district’s leadership last year, and the school board has taken a number of steps in the years since the cheating revelations surfaced to “make sure something like this never happens again,” the board said in a statement.

The verdict, the board said, brought an end to “a sad and tragic” chapter for Atlanta Public Schools.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered evidence of 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 Atlanta public schools.

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

Prosecutors, in the case of the 12 who went to trial, argued that former Superintendent Beverly Hall’s call for better test scores were at the core of the alleged conspiracy. Ms. Hall, who resigned after the scandal broke in 2011, offered cash bonuses to educators at schools that met achievement targets.

Prosecutors pegged Ms. Hall as the conspiracy’s ringleader, though she denied that charge.

“Superintendent Beverly Hall and her senior staff knew, or should have known, that cheating and other offenses were occurring,” investigators wrote in a 2011 report commissioned by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue.

But Ms. Hall’s failing health kept her from ever standing trial, and she died of breast cancer on March 2, soon after the testimony ended.

Igniting Debate

The widespread nature of the alleged cheating in Atlanta and other districts in recent years have helped fuel a national debate about high-stakes standardized tests in schools: the frequency of those tests; the intense pressures on teachers and principals to increase student test scores because job security and bonuses are often tied to those scores; and the ease by which the scores could be manipulated by a few.

“It shocked people to see how pervasive cheating was on school tests ... forced people around the country to take note of the problem,” said Gregory Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina, and who testified as a prosecution witness during the cheating trial.

“We thought education was going to be immune to the possibilities of cheating,” Mr. Cizek 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, a critic of the explosion of high-stakes standardized tests and the reliance on those tests to judge performance of students, educators, and districts, 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.

Said James Wollack, a University of Wisconsin professor and test-security expert: “School districts know when this is going on, and they know, if it is going on, they probably can’t hide from it.”

Ramping Up Security

In the years since the Atlanta cheating scandal made national news, districts have ramped up test security efforts and have focused on data forensics, which involve hiring companies to conduct statistical analyses on tests when the results appear highly unusual or if student scores dramatically differ when they change classrooms or schools, Mr. Schaeffer said.

In the Atlanta case, a deep-dive state investigation identified erasure patterns on student answer sheets that suggested the educators changed wrong answers to right ones after the test.

To combat the practice, more states are moving more, if not all, of their testing online. But computer-based tests aren’t infallible either. With online tests, Mr. Wollack said, states should look for quick-response times, an indication that students may have been coached by proctors.

“Anytime you have a high-stakes test, there will be people spending considerable time trying to game the system,” he said. “And there’s no way to prevent proctors from giving help during the exam.”

Schools with limited numbers of computers can give a test when they have the space, rather than at a set time. With so many variables and a longer testing window, the possibility of test security breaches grows. Some students have even taken to posting test questions on social media sites, such as Twitter.

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“The shortage of computers means that the test is being exposed to students and teachers over a longer period of time,” Mr. Cizek said.

In the wake of the Atlanta scandal, many districts also provide annual training for staff, schooling districts on what teachers can say and do during testing, and how to properly limit access to exams before testing begins.

Under pressure to perform, however, preventive measures may not matter, some experts have said.

Mr. Wollack sees things differently.

“These test scores are a big piece of how we decide whether students are learning,” he said. “The people we trust to educate our kids ... we expect that they’ll have high moral and ethical standards.”


Names and Verdicts in Atlanta Cheating Trial

Tamara Cotman
Former School Reform Team executive director
Charges: Racketeering and influencing witnesses. (Earlier found not guilty of trying to influence a witness.)
Verdict: Guilty of racketeering

Sharon Davis-Williams
Former School Reform Team executive director
Charges: Racketeering, false swearing, false statements and writing
Verdict: Guilty of racketeering; not guilty of two counts of false statements and writings. An earlier charge of false swearing was dismissed.

Michael Pitts
Former School Reform Team executive director
Charges: Racketeering and influencing witnesses
Verdict: Guilty of racketeering; guilty of influencing witnesses.

Dana Evans
Former Principal of Dobbs Elementary
Charges: Racketeering, false statements and writings
Verdict: Guilty of racketeering; guilty of one count of false statements and writings; not guilty of three counts of false statements and writings.

Tabeeka Jordan
Former Assistant Principal of Deerwood Academy
Charges: Racketeering, false statements and theft by taking
Verdict: Guilty of racketeering; not guilty of false statements and writings; not guilty of theft by taking.

Donald Bullock
Former testing coordinator at B.E. Usher/Collier Heights Elementary
Charges: Racketeering, false statements or writings, false swearing
Verdict: Guilty of racketeering; guilty of false swearing; guilty of two counts of false statements and writings; guilty of false swearing; not guilty of one count of false statements and writings.

Theresia Copeland
Former testing coordinator at Benteen Elementary
Charges: Racketeering, false statements or writings, theft by taking
Verdict: Guilty of racketeering; guilty of one count of false statements and writings; not guilty of theft by taking. One count of false statements and writings was dismissed.

Diane Buckner-Webb
Former teacher at Dunbar Elementary
Charges: Racketeering, false statements and writings
Verdict: Guilty of racketeering; guilty of two counts of false statements and writings.

Pamela Cleveland
Former teacher at Dunbar Elementary
Charges: Racketeering, false statements and writings
Verdict: Guilty of racketeering; guilty of two counts of false statements and writings.

Dessa Curb
Former teacher at Dobbs Elementary
Charges: Racketeering, false statements and writings
Verdict: Not guilty of racketeering; not guilty of two counts of false statements and writings.

Shani Robinson
Former teacher at Dunbar Elementary
Charges: Racketeering, false statements and writings
Verdict: Guilty of racketeering; guilty of false statements and writings.

Angela Williamson
Former teacher at Dobbs Elementary
Charges: Racketeering, false statements and writings, false swearing
Verdict: Guilty of racketeering; guilty of four counts of false statements and writings.

Source for names and verdicts: The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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