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Atlanta Teachers Surrender for Crimes Related to Doctoring of Test Scores

April 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
It was deadline day in Atlanta for 35 former educators to voluntarily turn themselves in to face charges for crimes related to widespread, coordinated cheating by principals and teachers. Margaret Warner talks with Mike Winerip of The New York Times for more on the allegations, possible motives and how it has affected students.
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MARGARET WARNER: Next: allegations of widespread cheating by principals and teachers in Atlanta’s public schools. The charges have tarnished the school system and triggered criminal indictments. Today marked an important deadline in the case.

Early this morning, Tameka Goodson turned herself in to authorities at Fulton County Jail, the first of nearly three dozen former Atlanta educators required to surrender after being indicted in a systemwide cheating scandal.

Fulton County district attorney Paul Howard announced the charges Friday.

FULTON COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY PAUL HOWARD: The four principal crimes that are charged in the indictment are the statements and writings, false swearings, theft by taking, and influencing witnesses.

MARGARET WARNER: Prosecutors say, as early as 2005, under pressure from the top, principals and teachers engaged in coordinated doctoring of students’ standardized test scores.

The charges range from giving students the correct answers to changing wrong answers to right ones. At the center of the scandal is former superintendent Beverly Hall. During her 12 years as its head, the Atlanta public school system gained attention for its meteoric progress, so much so that in 2009 Hall was named national superintendent of the year.

She retired in 2011, just before a state investigation found evidence of cheating involving 178 educators, including 38 principals. The ex-school’s chief now faces racketeering and other conspiracy charges, including theft.

District attorney Howard:

PAUL HOWARD: Without her, this conspiracy could not have taken place, particularly in the degree that it took place, because, as we know, this took place in 58 of the Atlanta public schools. And it wouldn’t have taken place if her actions had not made that possible.

MARGARET WARNER: Prosecutors say Hall received bonuses tied to the falsely inflated test scores. Hall has denied any involvement in the cheating scandal. And, yesterday, some of the others accused also denied any wrongdoing to local press.

FORMER SUPERINTENDENT MICHAEL PITTS, Atlanta Public Schools: I am actually considered a criminal for doing the best I can for children all my life?

WOMAN: I can tell you Dr. Hall has never told me to cheat, nor have I told anyone else to cheat.

MARGARET WARNER: Trial dates have not been set. Hall faces up to 45 years if convicted on all counts.

As of 5:00 p.m. today, just 11 of the defendants had turned themselves in. And defense lawyers complained about some bonds that initially were set at one million dollars or higher.

We look more closely at the cheating scandal with Mike Winerip, who’s covering it for The New York Times.

Mike, welcome to the program.

The scope of this alleged operation is huge. How did it actually work? What were the methods teachers used, allegedly, to change or boost test scores?

MIKE WINERIP, The New York Times: Well, the most basic changes, Margaret, were done by erasure, where wrong answers were turned right.

The investigation showed that something like — some of the schools, the odds of it happening randomly were a trillion to one. Principals often directed the teachers. The teachers — there was one teacher, a case where he went into a locked testing room. He had a razor blade. He cut the cellophane on the test. He took the test out. He copied it. He returned it. He used a cigarette lighter to reseal the cellophane.

MARGARET WARNER: And what was Superintendent Beverly Hall’s role, again according to the prosecutors? In other words, is she accused of being the mastermind and ordering or directing this, or was it something less overt than that?

MIKE WINERIP: At this point, it appears to be something less overt. There’s no evidence, as her attorneys pointed out, that she actually sat in her office and said, I want cheating at Venetian Hills School or I want it at Parks Middle School.

What there is of evidence is that people came to her directly. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Education Department, her own investigators said there’s substantial cheating at these schools. And she did nothing substantial about it.

MARGARET WARNER: You also wrote, I think, that under her system, if principals didn’t consistently improve the scores at their school, they could be fired and often were.

MIKE WINERIP: Yes, indeed.

They were given three years to make the targets. And if they didn’t, she told them they would be gone. And in the course of her decade or so there, something like 90 percent of the principals were replaced.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you had a very interesting story — you mentioned Venetian Hills Elementary School — about how the special prosecutors appointed by the governor and an investigator cracked this case. And it involved an elementary teacher at Venetian Hills.

MIKE WINERIP: Yes.

Her name is Jackie Parks. And Jackie is a third grade teacher. And when Richard Hyde, the lead investigator for the special prosecutors, turned up there, for a couple of weeks, the teachers lied to him about whether they were involved. Jackie Parks indeed blocked his entry into their third grade class.

But he kept coming back. And Ms. Parks is a very religious woman, and it weighed on her conscience. And she finally approached him and told him what happened. And what happened was a group of seven teachers, including herself, known as the chosen, sat in a room, a locked room with no windows and erased wrong answers and made them right.

And because of her religion, her Christianity, she couldn’t bear it anymore. And after she confessed to Mr. Hyde, he wired her an electronic wire and she recorded other teachers at the school.

MARGARET WARNER: What about the real victims here, the children who were advanced to the next grade and the next grade despite not being ready? How much damage was done? Have they tried to quantify that? And what’s being done to rectify things for them or to help them catch up?

MIKE WINERIP: Well, there’s no — it’s not known exactly how many children were negatively affected by this.

When the new superintendent came in, Errol Davis, one of the first things he did was set up special remedial courses for the kids who had been at schools where there was cheating. Something like 8,000 students were included. The — there was testimony at one of the schools from a teacher that she had students at a middle school who came in and were supposedly proficient in reading.

And when she actually tested them, they were reading on the first grade level, because they had been passed as proficient, when they had actually flunked the test in previous years.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, when you look at the national picture, I mean, there are accusations of teacher or principal cheating like this in other parts of the country.

Do you know if the Atlanta — the scope of the Atlanta case, is this an aberration? Is Atlanta really an outlier, or is it possible there are other widespread operations like this?

MIKE WINERIP: No, I don’t believe it is an outrider.

And I believe there are other operations like this. The problem is only Atlanta has invested the resources to find out. Most of the school systems don’t want to know, Washington, D.C., the state of Ohio, what’s going on now, what’s going on in El Paso, Texas.

And in Georgia, the former governor Sonny Perdue appointed two prosecutors, lead prosecutors in the state, a former attorney general, a former district attorney, the best investigator in the state, gave them an open budget and said find out what you can find out. And they eventually hired 50 investigators and were given a year’s time.

And they came up with the evidence. I believe that would be found at many, many other school districts if there were the political will to get to the bottom of these things.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Mike — Mike Winerip of The New York Times, thank you very much.

MIKE WINERIP: Thank you for having me, Margaret.