The Atlanta teacher cheating scandal centers around a case involving staffers in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) district who were accused of tampering with scores on a series of standardized tests that were given to local-area 8th graders during the 2000s. Recently culminating in guilty verdicts and sentences for 11 former educators, the case has been one of the biggest scandal stories in the 2015 news cycle. This essay was brought to you by one of your expert academic writers.
Cheating scandal in Atlanta
The scandal first broke when a series of improbable shifts in testing scores were revealed in a 2009 analysis of Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) results by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Two schools arousing particular suspicion were West Manor and Peyton Forest elementary schools, where test results among the lowest-performing students shot to the top within the course of a single year. Statistically, the likelihood of such a collective leap would be about one in a billion (Perry and Vogell).
In July 2011, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) unveiled its own findings on the scandal, in which 44 schools were found to have cheated on CRCTs during the 2009 school year. The discrepancies were first noticed by the Georgia Office of Student Achievement, which found that a suspicious number of incorrect test answers had been erased and corrected.
All in all, 38 principles and 140 teachers were implicated in the GBI findings. The Bureau’s 800-page report indicated that schools felt pressured into upping their test results “at any cost” due to a “culture of fear” brought upon the school board by APS superintendent Beverly Hall (Flock). Though she denied any knowledge of the cheating, suspicions swirled around the superintendent and her staff. As the scandal mounted, Hall was ultimately pressured into resigning from her role of 11 years in the weeks leading up to the GBI report.
The scandal spurred controversy over the demands of modern-day testing standards. Critics assert that educators have been rendered vulnerable by the mandates imposed by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which leaves teachers accountable when student testing scores fall under a certain level. APS staffers who confessed to cheating blamed their actions on pressures stemming from these rules, as enacted by the Atlanta school district.
Allegedly, in classrooms where testing scores had fallen short of NCLB requirements, teachers feared reprimand or possible termination. As far back as 2005, the teachers involved in the conspiracy either revealed answers to students in advance of the tests, or changed incorrect answers once tests had been submitted. According to some reports, a few teachers tried to blow the whistle on the cheating, but were ultimately bullied into silence.
The rise and fall of the APS
Before the scandal broke, much praise had been lavished on the APS for improvements the district had supposedly made on collective testing results. From 2002 to 2009, a national record was set by Atlanta-area students, whose collective scores jumped 14 percent on the National Assessment of Education Progress reading test. Hall remarked that the district’s student body was
“digging out of a deep hole and doing it at a significantly fast rate,” in reference to the scores, which coincided with her being named the 2009 Superintendent of the Year” (Koebler).
Rebuking Hall’s remarks in light of the scandal, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said that
“[most] of the accolades, and much of the praise, received by APS over the last decade [was] ill-gotten.”
The Republican also chided what he saw as a “failure of leadership” from the exiting superintendent, whose lawyer continued to assert Hall’s innocence amidst mounting allegations of complicity on the matter (Koebler).
On March 29, 2013, a Fulton County grand jury indicted Hall along with 34 APS district staff—including 13 teachers, eight principles, and three resource directors—on 65 counts of criminal misconduct for their role in the CRCT exam scandal. District Attorney Paul Howard stated that the ex-superintendent “was a full participant in [the] conspiracy.” Her bond was recommended at $7.5 million (“Ex-APS Superintendent”). Facing up to 45 years in prison, Hall died from breast cancer at age 68 on March 2, 2015, just as a lengthy trial was winding down for 12 of the indicted who refused to take plea deals.
At long last, a verdict
Following six months of testimony and eight days of jury deliberation, 11 former APS educators were convicted of racketeering charges on April 1, 2015. A twelfth defendant, Desa Curb, was acquitted of racketeering, but given a mixed verdict on other charges. During the trial, which had ran since Sept. 29, defendants reiterated that they had been pressured by Hall to fudge student CRCT scores.
Remarking on the lengthy case, Judge Jerry Baxter told reporters that he had “never seen a jury that was more diligent” in his 42 years on the bench (“11 Atlanta educators”). Baxter further voiced frustration over what he viewed as an indignant refusal among the former educators to admit to any wrongdoing, going so far as to tell the defense that “[e]verybody knew cheating was going on and your client promoted it,” (Ellis and Lopez). Once the verdict was read, he ordered for the convicts to be taken into immediate custody.
On April 14, Judge Baxter delivered the following sentences:
- Diane Buckner-Webb – One year prison; four years probation; $1,000 fine; 1,000 hours community service.
- Donald Bullock – Six months of weekend jail time; $5,000 fine; five years probation; 1,500 hours community service.
- Pamela Cleveland – Five years probation; one year 7am-7pm home confinement; community service.
- Theresia Copeland – One year prison; four years probation; $1,000 fine; 1,000 hours community service.
- Tamara Cotman – Seven years prison; 13 years probation; $25,000 fine; 2,000 hours community service.
- Sharon Davis-Williams – Seven years prison; 13 years probation; $25,000 fine; 2,000 hours community service.
- Dana Evans – One year prison; four years probation; 1,000 hours of community service.
- Tabeeka Jordan – Two years prison; three years probation; $5,000 fine; 1,500 hours community service.
- Michael Pitts – Seven years prison; 13 years probation; $25,000 fine; 2,000 hours community service.
- Angela Williamson – Two years prison; three years probation; $5,000 fine; 1,500 hours community service.
An eleventh defendant was giving birth at the time and has yet to be sentenced. All defendants are currently out on bond and most are appealing their verdicts; except for two who were given lighter sentences in exchange for pleading guilty and waiving their rights to appeal.
The case raised eyebrows among legal analysts because the former educators were tried and convicted on racketeering charges that are normally only used against gangsters and mafia figures. Critics also alleged that the lengthy sentences given to Cotman, Davis-Williams, and Pitts—all former academic reform team executives—was unduly severe for the non-violent crimes in question, especially considering that the three were all first-time offenders.
Nonetheless, the verdict was greeted by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who referred to the scandal as “one of the darkest periods in the life of our city,” and insisted that residents could “finally close this chapter and move forward with the education and development of our young people,” (“11 Atlanta educators”).
Judge Baxter reconsiders
Two weeks after handing out sentences to the convicted individuals, Judge Baxter reconsidered the severity of the seven years that he’d delivered to Cotman, Davis-Williams, and Pitts. Indicating that his initial judgment may have been harsh and ill-considered, Baxter admitted to CNN that when
“a judge goes home and he keeps thinking over and over that something’s wrong, something is usually wrong,” (Ellis and Lopez).
With that in mind, he reduced their sentences on April 30 to three years prison, seven years probation, and $10,000 fines with the same amount of community service.
Greeting the news positively was Davis-Williams, whose attorney, Teresa Mann, told reporters that her client is
“elated that Judge Baxter took the opportunity to reflect,” on his initial harsh ruling (Ellis and Lopez).
Reflecting on his decision to resentence the three, Baxter revealed that he would be going “out to pasture in the not-too-distant future,” and that he wants “to be out in the pasture without any regrets.” He also referred to the APS cheating scandal as a “mess” and thusly stated
“I’m ready to move on. So, anyway, adios,” as the hearing ended (Ellis and Lopez).
On a more humorous note, political commentator Jon Stewart likened the APS scandal to the Bush-era mortgage-sector fraud that triggered the 2008 recession. Commenting on Judge Baxter’s ruling on an April 22 broadcast of The Daily Show, the host found it bizarre and unfair that while both the Atlanta educators and the Wall St. bankers cheated in their respective fields, only the former party is going to prison (“Jon Stewart compares”).
Perry, John and Heather Vogell. “Are drastic swings in CRCT scores valid?” Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Cox Enterprises. 5 July 2011. Web. 17 May 2015.
Flock, Elizabeth. “APS (Atlanta public schools) embroiled in cheating scandal.” The Washington Post. Nash Holdings LLC. 11 July 2011. Web. 17 May 2015.
Koebler, Jason. “Educators Implicated in Atlanta Cheating Scandal.” U.S. News. U.S. News & World Report LP. 7 July 2011. Web. 17 May 2015.
“Ex-APS Superintendent Beverly Hall, others indicted.” WSB-TV Atlanta. Cox Media Group. 29 March 2013. Web. 17 May 2015.
“11 Atlanta educators convicted in cheating scandal.” USA Today. Gannett Company, Inc. 1 April 2015. Web. 17 May 2015.
Ellis, Ralph and Elwyn Lopez. “Judge reduces sentences for 3 educators in Atlanta cheating scandal.” CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 30 April 2015. Web. 17 May 2015.
“Jon Stewart compares the Atlanta teacher cheating scandal to Wall Street, and isn’t impressed.” The Week. The Week Publications. 23 April 2015. Web. 17 May 2015.