35 Atlanta public school employees, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall, face criminal RICO and other charges for conspiring to fraudulently inflate state standardized test scores for financial rewards. Allegations of cheating first arose when local media questioned how half of Atlanta’s schools achieved a 30 percent increase in student test scores from the previous year. After a two and a half year investigation, Georgia’s special investigations team concluded that cheating occurred between 2004 and 2010 in 44 of Atlanta’s 56 schools.
Jackie Parks, a third grade teacher turned reluctant whistleblower, admitted that she was one of seven teachers, nicknamed “the chosen,” who sat with a stack of tests in a windowless room during state test weeks, erasing wrong answers and filling in correct answers. After investigators approached Ms. Parks in her classroom, she agreed to wear a wire to expose the cheating that she said had been going on so long that teachers “considered it part of our jobs.”
The Governor’s report found the unethical behavior stemmed from unreachable “targets” administrators and the Georgia Board of Education set for the teachers. The investigators found that “[t]argets were implemented by [Atlanta public schools] in such a way that teachers and administrators believed that they had to choose between cheating to meet targets or failing to meet targets and losing their jobs.”
Superintendent Hall and other high level employees fostered a culture of fear and intimidation in order to pressure educators to cheat, threatening that there would be “no exceptions and no excuses” for failing to meet targets. Hall’s zero tolerance policy bore out: during her ten years as superintendent, 90 percent of Atlanta Public School principals were replaced for failing to meet targets. And teachers or administrators who questioned test scores or reported evidence of cheating were reprimanded, including six whistleblowers who were threatened with bad reviews or verbal abuse before being fired or demoted.
Hall and other administrators also incentivized school employees to cheat and stay quiet by offering financial rewards for meeting targets. If the entire school met 70 percent of their “targets,” every employee received a bonus ranging from $50 to $2000. Superintendent Hall, however, stood to benefit the most. She received $500,000 in bonuses and was named the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year for Atlanta’s high academic performance. She retired in 2011.
Despite the lengthy government investigation and multiple teacher confessions, Hall denies all charges and maintains that people under her had allowed cheating, but that she was unaware that it was going on. Superintendent Hall may face up to 45 years in prison if she receives the maximum penalties for all of the charges against her.