How cheating on standardized tests can be a criminal act

In Atlanta, 11 former public school teachers, principals and administrators were convicted of racketeering charges for cheating on standardized tests for financial rewards and bonuses. An investigation had found systematic cheating in more than 40 schools. Judy Woodruff learns more from Kevin Riley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Read the Full Transcript


    A jury in Atlanta has convicted 11 former public school teachers, principals and administrators on racketeering charges tied to cheating on standardized tests.

    The convictions came on the eighth day of jury deliberations, after a six-month-long trial that detailed systematic cheating in more than 40 schools, involving more than 170 educators and administrators. Thirty-five people were indicted. And prior to the trial, more than 20 pleaded to lesser charges.

    Fulton County district attorney Paul Howard spoke afterward about the impact he hoped the trial will have.

  • PAUL HOWARD, Fulton County District Attorney:

    Our entire effort in this case was simply to get our community to stop and take a look at our educational system. That's what we wanted. We wanted people to look at the educational system that their children attended every day, to make some assessment, after they made that assessment, to look to see what we had to do as a community to move forward.


    Signs of widespread sheeting in the Atlanta schools were first uncovered in 2008 by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation.

    Kevin Riley is the editor. And he joins me now.

    Kevin Riley, welcome to the program.

    Explain to us again what the charges were. How did cheating on a school test become something that people may go to prison for?

  • KEVIN RILEY, Editor, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

    Well, in the end, we all have to remember that there were bonuses and financial incentives tied to the performance of students on these test scores.

    So, in the end, teachers, administrators, and principals have to attest to the validity of the test. And that's how the prosecutor pursued racketeering charges, because his case was based on illegal activity in the guise of a legitimate enterprise.


    So, who were the people? We named some of the positions. Who were the people who were being charged and what exactly did they do?


    Well, they really were in a wide range, from the schools' principals, administrators, teachers.

    But, in the end, the most compelling and disturbing part of what we learned through all this was teachers were actually altering students' answers on tests, giving students the clues to the answers. And I think that that was really the part that everyone found most disturbing, that educators would go that far, to literally cheat and change answers, in order to reach goals that they had been given.


    So, what proportion of the entire Atlanta school system was involved? We said 44 schools. What does that represent?


    It was never a majority of the schools

    But, at one point, the state's investigation named dozens of schools and almost 200 educators. So it wasn't a small thing, but there were still many, many more schools that legitimately gave the test, recorded the results, and dealt with students who were struggling to achieve those results.


    There was very strong language that was used not only by the attorney, by the prosecutor, but others in describing what the former superintendent of schools — she passed away earlier this year, Beverly Hall, what she had done. But it sounds as if it was very much a systematic effort to change these results.


    Well, one of the most troubling things about what happened is that we never heard from Beverly Hall, the superintendent, and the central figure in this entire scandal. She was never under oath, never faced trial because of her illness.

    And she was adamant that these things went on without her knowledge and that she didn't create a situation where they would be allowed to go on. But, in the end, many people felt that she was the main person behind what turned out to be a very sad conspiracy to cheat on tests.


    So, Kevin Riley, what's the effect been on the Atlanta school system of all this?


    Well, there have been a lot of changes in the system and a new superintendent, and I think renewed focus by the community on the system.

    And I think, if there is a lesson, an important thing to remember about the scandal, it's this. Educating children in an urban school district is a big challenge. It's a challenge in Atlanta. It's a challenge across the country. And if a community is going to commit to that, it has to understand that the answers are not simple.

    Atlanta understands that now. And I think there are many of us that hope Atlanta will lead the way in finding new and better ways to educate urban schoolchildren.


    And what about the community's reaction, the city's reaction to all of this, people who live there?


    It's been very hard on the city, of course, because when a city is on the national news, you really hope it's for a good reason.

    And Atlanta has made news in this case and will be known as the place where one of the — probably the worst cheating scandal ever recorded happened. But, in the end, I think it will give us — all of us a renewed focus on the importance of education. And Atlanta is the kind of place that always bounces back.


    So, the 11 found who were guilty, potential sentencing is, they could spend years in prison?



    I mean, I think that one of the things to note about how the convictions came down is, they were convicted of racketeering, which is a very serious charge. And, usually, when you hear that kind of charge, it involves, you know, organized crime and career criminals.

    And the jury convicted them on those counts. And those sentences can be pretty stiff.


    And, finally, what would you say the national impact has been? You have been involved in journalism for some time. Do you think the country has seen, learned something from this?


    I think this scandal has called into question the wisdom of so much emphasis on standardized tests.

    And I think that that, again, will be the lesson from Atlanta, which is, you know, it's a big job to educate kids. Of course we want to measure their progress. But just testing and testing and testing and putting teachers under enormous pressure, that's not the answer. That has got to be something we think about and figure out a better way to do.


    Well, it certainly feeds into a much bigger debate about the wisdom of testing.

    Kevin Riley, the editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, thank you for talking with us.


    Thanks for having me.

Listen to this Segment