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Biggest Cheating Scandal in American History Unfolds

It took three top investigators ten months to crack a massive case of cheating in Atlanta public schools. But this time it wasn't students who were cheating — it was teachers and principals. Atlanta school professionals have been cheating to achieve higher test scores since as early as 2001. Principals from 44 Atlanta schools and 178 teachers were accused in the investigator's report; 82 people have confessed.

A couple of years ago, officials saw a dramatic rise in test scores from some of the poorest schools in Atlanta's public school system and decided to investigate, starting with schools that turned in tests with suspicious amounts of answers that had been erased and changed. The Governor of Georgia, Nathan Deal, released the investigator's report in early July. Only two weeks into the investigation, five teachers confessed that they had changed students' answers on the state standardized achievement tests because of strong pressure to raise the school's test scores. The 400-plus-page report indicates that widespread cheating was tolerated, encouraged, or enforced by many principals who were pressured by area superintendents.

Dr. Beverly L. Hall was the school superintendent throughout the time the cheating occurred. She retired last month, just before the report finding that she knew or should have known about the cheating came out. Although Hall denies any knowledge of the cheating, she did in fact benefit from the higher test scores that resulted, receiving $600,000 in bonuses in addition to her annual salary of $400,000 during her 12-year tenure. Hall was praised by the Secretary of Education for evaluating her schools based on their test scores and received superintendent of the year awards from two organizations.

Teachers and principals under Hall's superintendence tell a different story. According to the investigator's report, school administrators feared Hall because she used humiliation tactics to coerce principals to report higher test scores - no matter what it took to get them. Hall denies all allegations and will not take any blame for the cheating that went on during her watch.

In some schools principals held "changing parties" in which teachers would change the wrong answers on tests to correct ones. Teachers confessed that they cheated out of pressure from higher-ups and said they feared being punished, isolated, or fired.

Interim superintendent Erroll Davis has already fired four area superintendents and two principals. He told other school administrators named in the cheating scandal report to resign or face termination. Most teachers are fighting for their jobs, although more than 40 have resigned or retired so far. Going through court hearings and possible appeals with each of the implicated employees is likely to be a very costly process that will take months and millions of dollars to complete. Some teachers could face prison sentences for tampering with government documents and lying to investigators.

The school district, already smarting from state budget cuts, may have to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars it received from the federal government as a reward for the falsified test scores.

It is not only the budget and intimidated educators that were hurt by the cheating scandal. Thousands of students were promoted to the next grade without the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in that grade. Parents feel that the artificially high test scores gave them a false sense of security in their child's education, and that they were robbed of the opportunity to fix any problems accurate test scores would have revealed. Atlanta parents can no longer trust school officials to tell the truth or to put education above money, reputation, or job security.

Now taxpayers who paid the illegitimate bonuses will also bear the burden of paying for the prosecution, hiring new teachers, and attempting to truly educate the students who were pushed through a failing system without receiving an education.

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