Blog: The Educated Reporter

Follow-Up Friday: Educators Convicted in Atlanta Cheating Scandal

Eleven Atlanta Public Schools employees on trial for cheating on standardized tests were convicted this week. (One defendant, a special education teacher, was acquitted.) The criminal investigation followed a series of stories by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution into surprisingly big jumps in student scores over a relatively brief time period. Those gains, statisticians had said, were extremely unlikely to have occurred without direct interference. 

Beverly Hall, superintendent of the district at the time the cheating occurred, was too ill to stand trial for her role in the scandal. She died of breast cancer last month. Another dozen district employees took plea deals and avoided trial. The remaining defendants are facing upward of 20 years in prison on racketeering charges — a criminal statute more typically applied in cases against organized crime figures, as the New York Times noted. Some observers are questioning whether the intensity of the prosecution — and the potential sentences — are proportionate to the crime. But the prosecution contends the case was necessary.

“Our entire effort in this case was simply to get our community to stop and take a look at our educational system,” District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr. told the New York Times. “I think because of the decision of this jury today that people will stop. I think people will stop, and they will make an assessment of our educational system.”

While there have been instances of teachers losing their licenses for changing students’ answer sheets or otherwise cheating, criminal convictions are rare. That being said, it’s not unprecedented: In Ohio, a cheating scandal involving student enrollment data did result in both convictions and individuals serving jail time. (You can read the Columbus Dispatch’s full coverage here.) 

The “data czar” of Columbus’ schools (the state’s largest district) a former teacher and principal, went to jail for a short stint on a felony conviction. The district’s superintendent pleaded no contest was convicted of a misdemeanor. Jennifer Smith Richards of the Columbus Dispatch told me that another indictment is expected.

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Sometimes April Fool’s Day jokes are no laughing matter. That seems to be the case for veteran education journalist John Merrow of PBS Newshour, who posted a prank announcement that he was joining the board of directors of for-profit testing giant Pearson. That “news” didn’t sit well with readers of Diane Ravitch’s blog, when they failed to realize the education historian was kidding when she calling his mock announcement “a betrayal.“ 

As the day progressed, and the outraged comments mounted up, both Merrow and Ravitch chimed in several times to remind readers to check their calendars. Merrow later announced his “resignation,” effective at midnight. 



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