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How some Atlanta students are getting extra help years after a massive cheating scandal

Educators convicted for inflating test scores in the Atlanta public schools cheating scandal are still trying to clear their names in appeals courts, and the district continues to confront the fallout from years of systematic cheating. Special correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week offers a look back and follows up with some of the people who were caught up in the scandal.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was one of the biggest scandals to rock American schools. Nearly 200 educators in Atlanta were accused of systematic cheating, including changing answers on the state’s standardized tests, in order to boost students’ scores.

    Atlanta is one of many districts to confront cheating, but this case was unique. Educators faced criminal charges. Ultimately, nine people were sentenced to prison. Their appeals are just now beginning.

    Special correspondent Lisa Stark of our partner Education Week takes a look at what’s happened.

    It’s part of our weekly series Making the Grade.

  • Dana Evans:

    It’s been horrible.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Dana Evans was one of the Atlanta educators convicted in the cheating scandal, one of the largest in U.S. history.

  • Man:

      There’s no harder lesson than the one taught today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The convictions came on the eighth day of jury deliberations.

  • Man:

    Their crime was a conspiracy to fake test scores.

  • Lisa Stark: 

    The story has faded from the headlines, but not from the lives of those, like Evans, still trying to clear their names. Court appeals are just beginning.

  • Dana Evans:

    I’m not who they said I was in court. Dana Evans is not a cheater. I’m not a person who would hurt children in any way.

  • Lisa Stark:

    The investigation uncovered cheating at 44 schools, most of them elementary, 178 educators implicated, accused of inflating scores on standardized tests by erasing students’ answers and changing them from wrong to right.

    So why did they do it? At the time, testing was paramount, both under federal mandates and a hard-charging superintendent, Beverly Hall, who set targets even higher than the feds.

    Daniel Koretz is the author of “The Testing Charade.”

  • Daniel Koretz:

    The teachers were under enormous pressure. They were teaching in a low-achieving district. They had very high targets to meet. The targets were essentially made up out of whole cloth.

    They were not things that teachers could meet by legitimate means.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Also in Atlanta, raising scores could raise educators accolades and bonuses. Not doing so could cost them their jobs.

    In Evans’ case, investigators found, as principal at Dobbs Elementary, she didn’t cheat or encourage it, but should have known it was going on. She is still dumbfounded at her conviction and the contention that educators cheated for money.

  • Dana Evans:

    I got bonuses one year out of the four years that I was principal, and it was $1,000. And I gave more than $1,000 to Dobbs. I paid for kids’ uniforms, and I paid for people’s rent and their gas bills.

    And it’s offensive that — that I would cheat for $1,000.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Cheating by educators has been reported in some 40 states, but Atlanta, a largely African-American high-poverty district, was one of the only places where prosecutors brought criminal charges, conspiracy, under Georgia’s racketeering law, a law often used against the mafia and drug dealers, not educators.

    Ultimately, just a dozen Atlanta educators ended up before a jury. Others pled or were let off the hook.

    As for Superintendent Hall, she died of cancer before trial. Eleven of the 12 in court were convicted.

  • Judge Jerry Baxter:

    All I want for many of these people is just to take some responsibility. But they have refused. They have refused.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter presided over the criminal case, then angry, now semi-retired and reflective.

  • Judge Jerry Baxter: 

    I brought a bad chapter to a close, not me personally, but the whole judicial apparatus.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Baxter, who comes from a family of teachers — both parents taught in Atlanta public schools — says he is comfortable with the verdict.

  • Judge Jerry Baxter: 

    In my mind, it was — it’s not a victimless thing, because these kids, a lot of them were pushed on. A lot of them couldn’t read. And they should have been held back, or they should have been given special resources. So, I’m — get a little bit worked up about it.

  • Lisa Stark:

    It’s hard to know the impact of the cheating scandal on the students.

    A study by Georgia State University five years later found that students who may have been affected were about a half-year behind their fellow students in reading and writing. But researchers admitted it was difficult to know how much the cheating played a role.

    The district has now started a program to help these students, 2,200 of them still enrolled in Atlanta public schools, those who had multiple answers changed on tests they took way back in 2009.

    Do you even remember taking the tests in third grade?

  • Nykira Ross:

    I don’t.

  • Lisa Stark:

    You don’t?

  • Nykira Ross:

    I really don’t.

  • Lisa Stark:

    It was a long time ago.

  • Nykira Ross:

    Right.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Seniors Nykira Ross and Sheldon Garmon III are among those entitled to extra tutoring, test prep and one-on-one support.

  • Sheldon Garmon Iii:

    Based on my grades, I don’t really need it.

  • Lisa Stark: 

    Some, like Garmon, are at the top of the class. Others struggle, but all are eligible for extra help.

  • Nykira Ross: 

    There are people that come in and help you with your math or English or science. And they are really helpful.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Each student also gets a support coach.

    Is your coach checking in with you every day?

  • Nykira Ross:

    I see her, yes, every day.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Every day?

  • Nykira Ross:

    Almost every day.

  • Sheldon Garmon Iii:

    Even when you don’t see her, she knows where you are. Sheldon, why are you in the gym? You’re supposed to be in math.

  • Lisa Stark:

    This is the first sustained effort to help these students, now in its second full year.

  • Shawnna Hayes-tavares:

    Certainly, the intention is good.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Shawnna Hayes-Tavares is the mother of two children whose test answers were changed. She says the program, which will cost $3.5 million this year, is still a work in progress, and took too long to set up.

  • Shawnna Hayes-tavares: 

    We wait six years even to start a program. It’s hard to be optimistic. But, of course, I have to be, because we’re talking about the lives of children.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Do you think the district owes these students to offer them this help?

  • Tiffany Frankling:

    I don’t like to use the word owed. But I’m glad that this program is in place. If I was a parent and I had a child that was potentially impacted, I would utilize it.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Tiffany Franklin oversees the effort. There’s no hard data yet to indicate whether the program is making a difference.

  • Tiffany Frankling: 

    And success to us is that they graduate and that we help make sure that when they graduate they have an option. And that’s what we do.

  • Lisa Stark:

    But no one is help those who have may have dropped out because of the cheating scandal.

    District attorney Paul Howard, who prosecuted the case, pledged to set up a program for them, but has not raised the money.

  • Paul Howard:

    It’s kind of a tough job, because it’s not a real popular cause. But I think, as a community, we owe it to those kids to give them what they lost.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Today, in Atlanta, exams still matter.

  • Bill Caritj:

    We take accountability very seriously. We take our test results very seriously.

  • Lisa Stark:

    But district administrator Bill Caritj says tests are now just one measure of achievement. No bonuses are tied to scores, and nearly all students take exams on computers, making widespread cheating more difficult.

  • Bill Caritj:

    No one sees the test. We don’t see it. Test coordinators don’t see it. The only ones who know what the tests look like are the people who built it.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Georgia has also cut back on and revamped its required tests. Nationwide, there’s been a backlash against high-stakes testing.

    That helped prompt a new federal law allowing states to reduce their emphasis on testing.

  • Daniel Koretz:

    Right now, tests dominate life in school day after day after day. I think that will become a little less so under the new legislation.

  • Lisa Stark: 

    Dana Evans insists she never judged her teachers on exam results alone.

  • Dana Evans: 

    Because I knew that, in order to be a teacher, there’s a lot that goes into that, and it’s not just about the end result of what a score is. It’s just one day of one child’s life.

  • Lisa Stark:

    Evans would love to work in education again, but figures that’s unlikely, even if she wins her appeal.

    Meantime, at her old elementary school, there is still a banner touting test scores during a year when cheating went on, an odd reminder of a time that most in Atlanta would like to forget.

    For the PBS NewsHour and Education Week, I’m Lisa Stark in Atlanta, Georgia.

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