ATLANTA (AP) — The former superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools and nearly three dozen other administrators, teachers, principals and other educators were indicted Friday in one of the nation's largest cheating scandals.
Former Superintendent Beverly Hall faces charges including racketeering, false statements and theft. She retired just days before a state probe was released in 2011, and has previously denied the allegations. The indictment represents the first criminal charges in the investigation.
The previous state investigation in 2011 found cheating by nearly 180 educators in 44 Atlanta schools. Educators gave answers to students or changed answers on tests after they were turned in, investigators said. Teachers who tried to report it faced retaliation, creating a culture of "fear and intimidation" in the district.
The cheating came to light after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that some scores were statistically improbable.
The criminal investigation lasted 21 months and the allegations date back to 2005. In addition to Hall, 34 people were indicted, including four high-level administrators, six principals and 14 teachers.
During a news conference Friday, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard provided examples of two students who demonstrated "the plight of many children" in the Atlanta school system. He described one girl, a third-grader, who failed a benchmark exam and received the worst score in her reading class in 2006. The girl was held back, yet when she took a separate assessment test not long after, she passed with flying colors.
Howard said the girl's mother, Justina Collins, knew something was awry, but was told by school officials that the child simply was a good test-taker. The girl is now in ninth grade, reading at a fifth-grade level.
"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," Collins said.
Howard would not directly answer a question about whether Hall led the conspiracy. He did say, however, "what we're saying is that without her, this conspiracy could not have taken place. ... It would not have taken place if her actions had not made that possible."
Most of the 178 educators named in the special investigators' report in 2011 resigned, retired, did not have their contracts renewed or appealed their dismissals and lost. Twenty-one educators have been reinstated and three await hearings to appeal their dismissals, said Atlanta Public Schools spokesman Stephen Alford.
The tests were the key measure the state used to determine whether it met the federal No Child Left Behind law. Schools with good test scores get extra federal dollars to spend in the classroom or on teacher bonuses.
Georgia last year was granted a waiver from the federal law, which allowed schools to count a host of measures in addition to standardized tests.
State schools Superintendent John Barge said last year he believes the state's new accountability system will remove the pressure to cheat on standardized tests because it won't be the sole way the state determines student growth. The pressure was part of what some educators in Atlanta Public Schools blamed for their cheating.
Alford, the schools spokesman, said the district was moving on from the scandal.
"This is a legal matter between the individuals implicated and the Fulton County District Attorney's office, and we will allow the legal process to take its course," he said before the indictment was announced. "Our focus is on providing a quality education to all of our students and supporting the 6,000 employees who come to work each day and make sound decisions about educating our students."
The Georgia Professional Standards Commission is responsible for licensing teachers and has been going through the complaints against teachers, said commission executive secretary Kelly Henson.
The commission considers cases as they are released from the district attorney's office. By Wednesday, they had received all but 26, Henson said.
It's common for educators to receive professional sanctions from the commission but not be charged, Henson said. The commission only requires a finding of guilt based on good evidence of wrongdoing, while criminal prosecutions require guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Of the 159 cases that the commission already reviewed, 44 resulted in license revocations, 100 got two-year suspensions and nine were suspended for less than two years, Henson said. No action was taken against six of the educators.