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Published in Print: April 15, 2015, as Atlanta Verdicts Ignite Debate

Convicted Atlanta Educators Draw Empathy, Condemnation

Defense attorney Robert Rubin, left, talks with his client, former Dobbs Elementary principal Dana Evans, center, before she 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.
Defense attorney Robert Rubin, left, talks with his client, former Dobbs Elementary principal Dana Evans, center, before she 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.
—Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
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The conviction of 11 former Atlanta educators on state racketeering charges that could land them behind bars has ignited debate about whether the punishment fits the crime in the case and fueled already-heated discussions about the role of high-stakes standardized tests in K-12 public schools.

Jurors in Fulton County, Ga., had to decide if the educators were conspirators in a widespread cheating scandal—or, as defense lawyers argued, were merely pawns in a scheme masterminded by their former supervisors in the Atlanta school district.

The jury, following six months of testimony, found last week that the former teachers and administrators plotted to artificially inflate test scores by changing answers or guiding students to fill in the correct responses on the 2009 Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, the state’s annual assessment.

The case captured national attention for the apparent breadth and pervasiveness of the corruption within the 50,000-student school system and for the resulting aggressive criminal prosecution of educators.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter ordered 10 of the convicted educators immediately jailed pending sentencing this month. One remains free on bond because she is pregnant and is close to her delivery date.

The guilty verdicts on charges other than racketeering—including theft, false statements and writing, and influencing witnesses—were mixed.

One defendant, a former elementary school teacher, was acquitted of all charges. Reactions to the verdicts have been strong—a blend of condemnation and empathy.

Atlanta Educators Convicted in Cheating Case

Eleven former teachers and administrators in the Atlanta school district were convicted on racketeering and a mix of other criminal charges for their role in widespread cheating on state tests. One defendant, a former elementary school teacher, was acquitted of all charges.

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.

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.

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.

“Cheating should never be condoned,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “Where is the humanity in denying bail and hauling off the educators to jail in handcuffs immediately after conviction, when their lives were already ruined?”

And opinions on the verdict and who’s to blame for the scandal are wide-ranging.

“All the evidence suggests that these were perfectly good people, who were just put under a lot of stress and pressure” to achieve certain targets, said Lynn A. Stout, a professor at the Cornell University Law School in Ithaca, N.Y., who has studied incentive and pay-for-performance programs. “The problem is that bad incentives turn good people into bad people.”

James Wollack, a University of Wisconsin professor and test-security expert, sees what happened in Atlanta 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.”

Organized Crime?

Because bonuses and raises were awarded to some educators based on the fraudulent test scores, prosecutors charged the defendants with violating the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, 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,” said Morgan Cloud, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

Angela Johnson, the lawyer representing Pamela Cleveland, who was convicted on charges of racketeering and making false statements and writings, said that her client, as a 1st grade teacher, was not even eligible for the test score bonuses. First graders do not take statewide standardized tests.

Ms. Johnson, a one-time high school teacher and former legal counsel for the Georgia Association of Educators, a state affiliate of the National Education Association, insists that her client was simply swept up in a broad prosecution.

Within the next week, Ms. Cleveland, 55, could be sentenced to 30 years in prison, which is “basically a death sentence,” Ms. Johnson said, who declined to say whether her client will appeal.

Educators in Georgia and across the nation also publicly wondered if prosecutors were too punitive.

“Nobody has been physically harmed and all the money has been returned," said Jimmy Stokes, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Education Leaders. “At this point, you have to ask what damage has been done.”

Long Shadow

The scandal has cast a long shadow, observers said, with the cheating allegations and trial looming over the district for more than six years.

“It undermines the public trust in these institutions,” said Michael McShane, an education policy research fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. “Also, what is the example they’re setting for the children in these classrooms?”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered evidence of cheating while reporting on abnormal test-score increases in 2008. That triggered a state investigation that found an unusual number of erasures on state tests at several Atlanta public schools.

Extra Fulton County deputies are stationed in the courtroom before the verdicts are read. A jury of six men and six women rendered their verdicts on the seventh day in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial on April 1.
Extra Fulton County deputies are stationed in the courtroom before the verdicts are read. A jury of six men and six women rendered their verdicts on the seventh day in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial on April 1.
—Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

The investigation, which was ordered by then Gov. Sonny Perdue, eventually led to the indictments of 35 Atlanta educators who, prosecutors said, changed students’ answers on tests because of pressure to boost test scores. Many of the educators reached plea agreements in exchange for their cooperation with prosecutors.

Prosecutors pegged former Superintendent Beverly Hall as the conspiracy’s ringleader, though she vehemently denied that charge. Ms. Hall, who retired after the scandal broke in 2011, offered cash bonuses to educators at schools that met achievement targets.

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

The verdict, the district’s school board said, brought an end to “a sad and tragic” chapter for Atlanta’s school system.

The widespread nature of the alleged cheating in Atlanta and other districts in recent years has helped fuel a national debate about high-stakes standardized tests in schools: the frequency of those tests, 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…[it] 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 who testified as a prosecution witness during the cheating trial.

In the last five years, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a critic of high-stakes standardized tests and the reliance on those assessments to judge the performance of students, educators, and districts, has documented cases of cheating in 40 states, the District of Columbia, and schools run by the U.S. Department of Defense. It also has documented 60 ways in which adults can manipulate test scores, said Robert Schaeffer, the organization’s public education director.

Mr. Schaeffer 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.

“These are perfectly legitimate debates to have,” said Mr. McShane, the AEI research fellow. “But I don’t think that you can justify outright cheating.”

Beefing Up Security

In the years since the Atlanta cheating scandal first 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 students’ scores dramatically differ when they change classrooms or schools.

Related Blog

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, testing online, much of it due to their adoption of the new common-core-aligned tests developed by two federally funded consortia. But computer-based tests aren’t infallible either, Mr. Wollack said.

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, causing some testing companies to monitor the sites for illegal sharing of test information.

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.

“Anytime you have a high-stakes test, there will be people spending considerable time trying to game the system,” Mr. Wollack said. “School districts know when this is going on, and they know, if it is going on, they probably can’t hide from it.”

Vol. 34, Issue 27, Pages 1,10-11

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