ATLANTA (CN) – Prosecutors wasted little time on Monday establishing a human dimension to the harm caused by an allegedly widespread and “cleverly disguised” conspiracy through which teachers and administrators fixed grades to protect their jobs.
“The defendants lied, cheated and stole,” said Assistant District Attorney Fani Willis as she explained the defendants’ alleged effort to inflate scores on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, a measure of how well students are meeting state-mandated standards in reading, mathematics, science and social studies.
During her three-hour opening statement, Willis accused the defendants of erasing incorrect test answers, telling children the correct answers, breaking into sealed exams beforehand to teach according to the test, and lying to law enforcement in order to disguise the conspiracy.
Willis said the teachers, principals and others involved in the alleged scheme sought to create a false impression of academic success in the Atlanta Public School District. However, these were far from victimless crimes, she said — the conspiracy caused harm to students because it denied them federal dollars and resources that could be used to their benefit.
“They were the biggest losers,” Willis declared.
Defense attorneys for the many defendants tried to counter these assertions by casting doubt on the reliability of the state’s witnesses, some of who received plea deals or immunity in exchange for their testimony.
The trial is expected to last at least three months, during which time the jury will be asked to weigh each defendant’s culpability on charges of racketeering, making false statements, theft by taking, and wrongly trying to influence witnesses.
One person the jury won’t hear from is former Atlanta Public School District Superintendent Beverly L. Hall, who has pleaded not guilty to racketeering and other charges. Hall is battling Stage IV breast cancer and has been deemed until to stand trial.
But as quickly became clear on Monday, prosecutors nevertheless intend to make Hall a presence in the proceedings.
Willis described the former superintendent as selling herself as the “magic elixir” for a district desperate to close an achievement gap with other Georgia districts when she was hired on July 1, 1999.
In short order, Willis said, Hall created “targets” which required that students meet and exceed expectations, but there was a catch:
Hall viewed the CRCT test as a primary measure for evaluating educators rewarding those who met targets with public recognition, performance bonuses and promotions, the prosecutor said.
Those who didn’t meet Hall’s targets were consigned to probation or found that their contracts were not renewed.
Regardless of the circumstances, Willis alleges that defendants accepted “no excuses” for falling short of the targets.
The cheating allegedly skewed the district’s eligibility for federal funds under No Child Left Behind, which went into effect in January 2008. The law provides money to schools that are found to be lacking in student proficiency.
The funds that can be spent on tutoring children and orchestrating professional development training to teachers. It also gives parents a choice to transfer their child out of a school that underperforms, and even closing schools that continued to fail.
Willis said No Child Left Behind funding is particularly critical to districts like Atlanta’s where many students suffer poverty, hunger and exposure to violent crime.
As an example, Willis spoke of a struggling Atlanta Public Schools student named Nybria Collins who lives with her brother and single mother, whom she described as escaping from an abusive relationship.
Collins’ mother sought academic assistance for Nybria from multiple sources, only to be told her daughter’s 2006 CRCT scores not only met, but exceeded expectations in reading and math. Her mother thought this was great news, but knew it could not be accurate, Willis said.
She explained the altered scores created a problem for the family because they meant Nybria was not eligible for extra services and resources she deserved as a student with learning disabilities.
Her mother sought direction from the teacher, principal and even executives in the Superintendent’s office regarding her doubts. When she eventually spoke with the Superintendent about her concerns, Hall’s alleged response was, “She just tests well.”
Collins left the office feeling defeated with no resources and nowhere else to go, Willis said.
The prosecutor said the alleged scheme unraveled in 2009, after the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA) conducted a statewide erasure analysis on the CRCT for the first time.
“You will learn that in 2009 there were 256,779 wrong to right (WTR) erasures on the CRCT exam. The odds of that happening are 1 in a quadrillion,” Willis said.
“That’s 15 zeros,” she added.
“In the entire state of Georgia, 74 schools were flagged for severe WTR erasures; 43 of those were APS schools,” Willis said.
Willis said the GOSA findings only confirmed what many people already knew. According to the prosecutor, cheating complaints poured in from 1999-2009 under Hall’s term. She claimed that a culture of fear developed as retaliation against whistleblowers occurred, and in time reports of cheating became anonymous and more difficult to prove.
In 2009, Superintendent Hall made almost $280,000 in salary, was deemed Georgia Superintendent of the Year, National Superintendent of the Year and landed a spot on the list of 100 Most Influential Georgians.
Willis alleges that Hall earned a total of more than $544,000 in bonus money the year the alleged cheating scheme fell apart.
Willis then spoke of first-year educator Leah Cauley who she said was shocked to find noticed her students’ behavior and performance was significantly different that what test scores indicated.
Willis said Cauley was told by fellow teachers that it was generally accepted to “emphasize the correct answer.”
When she shared her concerns about this practice with her mentor, the mentor reported the misconduct, Willis said.
Cauley was eventually fired, she said.
Prior to the start of the trial Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter tried to strike a calming note in what anyone could perceive as an already tense courtroom. He noted that in anticipation of a long trial, he made sure to enjoy hiking and horseback riding in North Carolina over the weekend.
He also claimed that he decided to have a t-shirt made that says, “Help, I’m talking and can’t shut up!” which he said he may award at the conclusion of the trial.
After the courtroom rumbled with laughter, he closed with, “At the end [of this], I hope we are all friends.”
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