In 2015, 11 teachers and school administrators from the Atlantic Public Schools (APS) district were convicted of racketeering and other crimes connected to a standardized test cheating scandal. All were sentenced to a combination of prison, fines, probation, and community service. Prison terms ranged from 6 months to 20 years. According to prosecutors, APS superintendent Beverly Hall encouraged a corrupt testing system that financially rewarded teachers whose students achieved high test scores and punished teachers with low test scores. While this is hardly the first instance of school cheating scandals in the United States, it drew national attention because of the scale and extent of the cheating. Investigators were given extensive power by Georgia governors to scrutinize and subpoena as they saw fit.
According to the indictment, “If a school achieved 70% or more of its targets, all employees of the school received a bonus. Additionally, if certain system-wide targets were achieved, Beverly Hall herself received a substantial bonus.” The indictment continued, “When principals and teachers could not reach their targets, their performance was criticized, their jobs were threatened and some were terminated. Over time, the unreasonable pressure to meet annual APS targets led some employees to cheat on the [Criterion Referenced Competency Test].” Teachers and administrators changed, fabricated, and falsely certified test answer sheets in order to meet targeted goals for improvement of their students’ test scores.
A review by the state found that cheating took place at more than half of the district’s elementary and middle schools. Approximately 180 teachers were involved. While the main focus of the investigation was from 2005 to 2009, cheating was believed to date back to as early as 2001. This was the same year that No Child Left Behind was passed. The cheating scandal at APS brought into greater debate the effectiveness of standardized testing. As education writer Valerie Strauss noted, “How did [the APS cheating scandal] happen? No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s chief education initiative, and then Race to the Top, President Obama’s central education program, placed increasingly high stakes on standardized test scores. They had to go up, or else there would be negative consequences not just for students but schools and teachers and principals.” These initiatives linked students’ test scores to teacher evaluations and pay.
Critics of the sentencing also pointed out the larger effects of inequality in Atlanta and its school system. Errin Whack, journalist and Vice President of Print for the National Association of Black Journalists, discussed the effects of inequality, “Ultimately, the two Atlantas must strike a new compromise to find solutions that don’t abandon or condemn parts of the city or its public schools. In perception and reality, the scales must be more balanced across metro Atlanta. Otherwise, children and teachers will continue to operate in an imbalanced system tasked with achieving impossible goals.”
Black students comprise more than 80 percent of the student population at six of the nine public high schools in Atlanta. White students are mostly concentrated in two high schools near the city’s highest concentration of college-educated adults. All 11 of the teachers and school administrators convicted are black. Brittney Cooper, professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, wrote in defense of the teachers, “Scapegoating Black teachers for failing in a system that is designed for Black children, in particular, not to succeed is the real corruption here… Black children have for generations been the primary victims of this continuing social mendacity about the national value of education.” In response to the sentencing, a mother in Atlanta stated, “Right now, it’s not going to touch white people, because this didn’t happen where they live.” She added, “The children got a sentence, too.”