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Atlanta Public Schools Administrator Acquitted in 1st Trial of Test Cheating Scandal

Atlanta Public Schools’ cheating scandal, which has been called the worst in the nation’s history, has hung over the city like a storm cloud for several years. But today, after prosecutors finally brought one of the educators to trial over the past week, she was acquitted of any wrongdoing.

A jury found Tamara Cotman not guilty of trying to influence a witness, which was the charge against her. Cotman was an area director for APS and the first, of roughly three dozen former administrators and teachers, to stand trial.

Cotman’s former boss, Superintendent Beverly Hall, an award-winning educator whose fall from grace has been shocking, also stands accused in the test cheating scandal. The charges emerged after a 2011 state investigation concluded that cheating occurred at 44 schools in the system, with educators feeling pressured to change student answers to avoid losing their jobs and also to earn bonuses.

The charges against Hall include conspiracy, making false statements and theft—some of the pay bonuses she received were tied to falsified scores on standardized tests. Hall has denied that she was involved in cheating since the story first broke five years ago.
While prosecutors say that the educators cheated on the CRCT to reap “the benefit of financial rewards associated with high test scores,” some educators tried to shift the blame to the pressures created by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. Under NCLB, school districts with low standardized test scores could be seriously penalized and even lose federal aid. 

“We don’t condone cheating, but when you have high-stakes testing, which are one-shot deals that don’t tell you whether a child is going to fail or succeed, the whole setup in terms of No Child Left Behind was unfair to children, unfair to educators,”  Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers said to MSNBC.

The APS scandal is one of many that has engulfed the nation’s school districts since 2001 when NCLB was first signed into law. Since NCLB  mandated high-stakes testing in every state and tied it to federal funding, a wave of cheating scandals has swept the nation. Newspaper investigations have found evidence of cheating in more than 30 states, though the Atlanta case is considered the largest in U.S. history, implicating 178 teachers and principals — including 82 who confessed to cheating—and pulling in 44 schools in the 52,000-student district.

Hall, who retired in 2011, was charged with racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and making false statements. Her bail was set at $7.5 million, and she could face up to 45 years in prison.

In Cotman’s trial, which occurred first because her attorney sought a speedy trial, a witness for the prosecution testified that after a teacher reported that she had been given standardized test answer sheets, Cotman rebuffed her and soon after the teacher was fired.

Prosecutors alleged that Cotman harassed and demoted a principal who she believed reported to the school board that Cotman gave instructions for school employees to tell cheating scandal investigators to “go to hell.”

But the jury ultimately didn’t believe prosecutors proved her guilt.

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