One of the largest and most scrutinized academic misconduct trials in U.S. history opened here Monday with prosecutors accusing 12 former schoolteachers and administrators of cheating, lying and stealing as part of a criminal conspiracy to boost students’ test scores.
Defense attorneys countered that the former Atlanta public school employees were dedicated educators who were innocent of all charges. Several suggested the defendants were maligned by former school district colleagues with personal vendettas.
The educators — five elementary school teachers, two testing coordinators, an assistant principal, a principal, and three superintendents — sat stiffly in the Fulton County Superior Court as prosecutors accused them of inflating students’ performance by modifying and falsely certifying answers in standardized tests. Some face up to 35 years in prison.
In an opening statement that lasted more than two hours, Fani Willis, executive assistant district attorney in Fulton County, said administrators set up a high-stakes testing system in which teachers received bonuses if their students performed well on standardized tests, and were threatened with demotion or termination if their schools did not meet annual progress targets.
“This was a conspiracy … a widespread, cleverly disguised conspiracy to illegally inflate test scores and create a false impression of academic success for many students in the Atlanta Public Schools system,” Willis told the jury. “It was done to those students’ detriment.”
Across the Atlanta Public Schools system, Willis said, educators stole test booklets before tests, provided students with the right answers during tests and changed students’ answers after tests. The result, Willis said, was that thousands of children who could barely read or add were denied the opportunity for remedial education.
“What you are going to learn is that in 2009 there were 256,769,000 wrong-to-right erasures,” said Willis, who argued that the suspicious test results were, in some cases, more unlikely than a snowstorm in July or being struck by lightning twice in the same week. “Do you know what the odds of such wrong-to-right erasures are? One in a quadrillion. That’s 15 zeros. A quadrillion.”
The Atlanta case, the most extensive in a string of U.S. school district cheating scandals in recent years, is the first trial in which elementary school teachers face charges of criminal racketeering. All 12 defendants are charged with violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, in addition to other charges such as making false statements and writings and influencing witnesses.
In a trial with a lot of statistics, Willis tried to underscore the human cost of the cheating with the story of Nybria Collins, a third-grade student in 2005 who had been diagnosed with learning disabilities. Her mother, Justina Collins, was shocked when Nybria, who had struggled with reading and math all year, mysteriously exceeded expectations on state tests. Such “success,” Willis noted, meant she was no longer entitled to federal funds for extra tutoring.
Yet many of the defense attorneys challenged the prosecution’s claims, saying that while cheating may have taken place, their clients were committed professionals who had simply made enemies of their former colleagues.
“You’ve heard the state describe a person who was a liar, who was a cheater, who was a racketeer — that's who the state contends Dana Evans is,” said attorney Robert Rubin, who represented a former principal of Dobbs Elementary School. “I’m here to tell you, and to show you, who Dana Evans really is... She was about putting students first and believing they can achieve.”
Rubin described Evans as an idealistic new principal who quoted Maya Angelou and welcomed staff feedback, and he said those who would testify against her were “malcontents” who showed up late, complained and resisted the culture of hard work and optimism she strove to instill.
Several of the defense attorneys questioned the moral standing of the state’s witnesses, many of whom have admitted to cheating and agreed to cooperate with authorities to avoid prosecution.
Sanford Wallack, an attorney for Dessa Curb, a former teacher at Dobbs Elementary, said two of the witnesses he expected to testify against his client were fired because they were “bad paraprofessionals.” One witness, he said, was “the epitome of a disgruntled employee,” who was fired after a physical altercation with a student.
The trial marks the end point of an extensive 2009 investigation, commissioned by then-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, into suspicious jumps in state-mandated test results. In 2011, a state report found “organized and systemic misconduct” in 44 of 56 Atlanta schools, with administrators creating a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” to pressure employees into crossing ethical lines.
In 2013, 35 educators, principals and administrators were indicted on racketeering and other charges. Lead defendant former superintendent Beverly Hall’s trial has been postponed as she receives treatment for Stage IV breast cancer. Another defendant has passed away, and 21 others have pleaded guilty, receiving reduced sentences of probation in exchange for serving as prosecution witnesses.
Though the 12 remaining defendants have insisted on their innocence, some attorneys opted Monday to reserve their statements until prosecutors have presented more evidence.
The trial is expected to last several months.