ATLANTA — Juwanna Guffie was sitting in her fifth-grade classroom taking a standardized test when, authorities say, the teacher came around offering information and asking the students to rewrite their answers. Juwanna rejected the help.
“I don’t want your answers, I want to take my own test,” Juwanna told her teacher, according to Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard.
On Friday, Juwanna – now 14 – watched as Fulton County prosecutors announced that a grand jury had indicted the Atlanta Public Schools’ ex-superintendent and nearly three dozen other former administrators, teachers, principals and other educators of charges arising from a standardized test cheating scandal that rocked the system.
Former Superintendent Beverly Hall faces charges including conspiracy, making false statements and theft because prosecutors said some of the bonuses she received were tied to falsified scores. Hall retired just days before the findings of a state probe were released in mid-2011. A nationally known educator who was named Superintendent of the Year in 2009, Hall has long denied knowing about the cheating or ordering it.
During a news conference Friday, Howard highlighted the case of Juwanna and another student, saying they demonstrated “the plight of many children” in the Atlanta school system.
Their stories were among many that investigators heard in hundreds of interviews with school administrators, staff, parents and students during a 21-month-long investigation.
According to Howard, Juwanna said that when she declined her teacher’s offer, the teacher responded that she was just trying to help her students. Her class ended up getting some of the highest scores in the school and won a trophy for their work. Juwanna felt guilty but didn’t tell anyone about her class’ cheating because she was afraid of retaliation and feared her teacher would lose her job.
She eventually told her sister and later told the district attorney’s investigators. Still confident in her ability to take a test on her own, Juwanna got the highest reading score on a standardized test this year.
The other student cited by Howard was a third-grader who failed a benchmark exam and received the worst score in her reading class in 2006. The girl was held back, yet when she took a separate assessment test not long afterward, she passed with flying colors.
Howard said the girl’s mother, Justina Collins, knew something was wrong, but was told by school officials that the child simply was a good test-taker. The girl is now in ninth grade, reading at a fifth-grade level.
“I have a 15-year-old now who is behind in achieving her goal of becoming what she wants to be when she graduates. It’s been hard trying to help her catch up,” Collins said at the news conference.
The allegations date back to 2005. In addition to Hall, 34 other former school system employees were indicted. Four were high-level administrators, six were principals, two were assistant principals, six were testing coordinators and 14 were teachers. A school improvement specialist and a school secretary were also indicted.
Howard didn’t directly answer a question about whether prosecutors believe Hall led the conspiracy.
“What we’re saying is, is that without her, this conspiracy could not have taken place, particularly in the degree that it took place. Because as we know, this took place in 58 of the Atlanta Public Schools. And it would not have taken place if her actions had not made that possible,” the prosecutor said.
Richard Deane, an attorney for Hall, told The New York Times that Hall continues to deny the charges and expects to be vindicated. Deane said the defense was making arrangements for bond.
“We note that as far as has been disclosed, despite the thousands of interviews that were reportedly done by the governor’s investigators and others, not a single person reported that Dr. Hall participated in or directed them to cheat on the C.R.C.T.,” he said later in a statement provided to the Times.
The tests were the key measure the state used to determine whether it met the federal No Child Left Behind law. Schools with good test scores get extra federal dollars to spend in the classroom or on teacher bonuses.
It wasn’t immediately clear how much bonus money Hall received. Howard did not say and the amount wasn’t mentioned in the indictment.
“Those results were caused by cheating. … And the money that she received, we are alleging that money was ill-gotten,” Howard said.
A 2011 state investigation found cheating by nearly 180 educators in 44 Atlanta schools. Educators gave answers to students or changed answers on tests after they were turned in, investigators said. Teachers who tried to report it faced retaliation, creating a culture of “fear and intimidation,” the investigation found.
State schools Superintendent John Barge said last year he believed the state’s new accountability system would remove the pressure to cheat on standardized tests because it won’t be the sole way the state determines student growth. The pressure was part of what some educators in the system blamed for their cheating.
A former top official in the New York City school system who later headed the Newark, N.J. system for three years, Hall served as Atlanta’s superintendent for more than a decade, which is rare for an urban schools chief. She was named Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators in 2009 and credited with raising student test scores and graduation rates, particularly among the district’s poor and minority students. But the award quickly lost its luster as her district became mired in the scandal.
In a video message to schools staff before she retired in the summer of 2011, Hall warned that the state investigation launched by former Gov. Sonny Perdue would likely reveal “alarming” behavior.
“It’s become increasingly clear that a segment of our staff chose to violate the trust that was placed in them,” Hall said. “There is simply no excuse for unethical behavior and no room in this district for unethical conduct. I am confident that aggressive, swift action will be taken against anyone who believed so little in our students and in our system of support that they turned to dishonesty as the only option.”
The cheating came to light after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that some scores were statistically improbable.
Most of the 178 educators named in the special investigators’ report in 2011 resigned, retired, did not have their contracts renewed or appealed their dismissals and lost. Twenty-one educators have been reinstated and three await hearings to appeal their dismissals, said Atlanta Public Schools spokesman Stephen Alford.
APS Superintendent Erroll Davis said the district, which has about 50,000 students, is now focused on nurturing an ethical environment, providing quality education and supporting the employees who were not implicated.
“I know that our children will succeed when the adults around them work hard, work together, and do so with integrity,” he said in a statement.
The Georgia Professional Standards Commission is responsible for licensing teachers and has been going through the complaints against teachers, said commission executive secretary Kelly Henson. Of the 159 cases the commission has reviewed, 44 resulted in license revocations, 100 got two-year suspensions and nine were suspended for less than two years, Henson said. No action was taken against six of the educators.