The Atlanta Public Schools' Cheating Trial Is About To Begin

The start of the 2014 school year promises to bring school supply bills, mountains of homework, and… federal scandal. On Monday Aug. 11, the jury selection process began for the 12 former Atlanta public schools employees allegedly embroiled in a state-wide cheating scandal. The employees have been accused of altering their students’ scores on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). In case you haven’t been keeping up on the details of the case, we've got you covered.

What is the CRCT?

The CRCT is used to determine the quality of education in Georgia, and whether the state meets federal education standards outlined by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The test is designed to measure a student’s skills in reading, English, math, science, and social studies in comparison to those of his or her peers at the local and state levels.

How did the scandal unfold?

In 2011, a state investigation claimed 44 Atlanta public schools were involved in a continuous cheating scandal in which over 178 teachers and principals across the district conspired to alter their students’ test scores. In addition to physically altering students’ test answers to reflect a higher median score in each school, top administrators also created a climate in which teachers unwilling to comply with the cheating were punished or fired, according to the investigation. The investigation estimated that, because of the scandal, nearly 12,000 students in the Atlanta public school district had been advanced to the next grade without achieving the mastery level to do so.

Fast forward to July 2014, when The New Yorker published a feature on the unfolding scandal that discussed both the conspiracies themselves and how to improve school accountability more generally. The article viewed the scandal through the lens of one specific public school — Parks Middle School in downtown Atlanta — to show how many of the teachers and administrators defamed in the score-boosting were stuck between a rock and a hard place, so to speak, when deciding to go along with the district-wide conspiracy.

Who are some of the key players?

The leader of the pack: Beverly L. Hall is the district’s former superintendent who had been previously named 2009 National Superintendent of the Year. Ms. Hall currently suffers from breast cancer, and will not appear in the current trial. The Fulton County Superior Court has “postponed her trial indefinitely.”

The Re-Accused: Angela Williamson was formerly a teacher at Dobbs elementary school. If convicted, Dobbs faces 35 years in prison for “coaching students to answer question correctly,” and lying to investigators. In 2012, she successfully appealed her firing and resumed teaching in the Atlanta Public School district, only to be re-indicted in 2014 with additional complaints.

The beloved teacher: Damany Lewis was a teacher at Parks Middle School and a central character in the aforementioned New Yorker article about the cheating scandal. Parks Middle School is currently suspected of having the most teachers involved in the cheating scandal.

Why would anyone alter test scores?

The New York Times suggests that the teachers and principals allegedly involved in the scandal boosted their students test scores to improve their district’s reputation, and make it seem like their students were performing better than they actually were. You're still wondering why the school employees would care enough about their school’s reputation to risk federal sanctions and jail time, right? Understanding their motives required taking a closer look at how NCLB functions at the state level, and how it can affect school culture.

In Atlanta, schools showing improvement on the CRCTs were often awarded bonuses, while schools failing to show progress and meet NCLB’s strict Adequate Yearly Progress standards are shamed at the local level and punished at the federal level. No wonder the district’s top administrators reportedly “created a culture of fear,” that encouraged teachers to meet “unrealistic testing goals” by any means possible.

In her tenure, Dr. Hall reportedly earned more than $500,000 in performance bonuses.

What will the penalties look like?

As of now, this remains uncertain. The New York Times reported that if the employees are found guilty of violating the state’s Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) —a statue usually associated with mobster crimes — they will each face a sentence of five to twenty years in prison. Each defendant, however, has also been charged with at least one other crime, which could add to their total sentence.

How long could this take?

The Atlanta Business Chronicle reports that the jury selection could take two to three weeks and that the actual trial could last up to eight months. The Chronicle also estimates that this could be the most expensive trial in Georgia state history.