ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Nearly three dozen former teachers and administrators from the Atlanta Public Schools have until the end of the day to report to the Fulton County Jail. They're named in a 65-count racketeering indictment related to cheating on school tests. A grand jury said the educators participated in a criminal enterprise to inflate students' test scores. NPR's Kathy Lohr was at the jail today as the first defendants turned themselves in.
KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Early this morning, a couple of defendants walked into the jail deliberately and without saying a word. One is Theresia Copeland who was a testing coordinator at an elementary school. She's being held on $1 million bond. Her attorney, Warren Fortson, says that's ridiculous.
WARREN FORTSON: They got her charged with one count of racketeering, theft by taking and two counts of false statements. Al Capone, as I understand it, didn't have to post $1 million dollar bond but they got down here that the bond is $1 million.
LOHR: Another former testing coordinator, Donald Bullock, is also being held on $1 million bond and his attorney Hurl Taylor says he's shocked.
HURL TAYLOR: It's much too high. You know, under the Eighth Amendment that's cruel and unusual punishment.
LOHR: The indictment claims there was a widespread conspiracy in the Atlanta schools to inflate test scores in order to achieve annual targets. Prosecutors say teachers and administrators erased incorrect answers on standardized tests and filled in the correct ones so students would meet goals. The officials benefitted, according to the indictment, from bonuses they received while students suffered. Former superintendent Beverly Hall was facing a $7.5 million bond, but it was reduced to $200,000. She turned herself in this evening. Hall denies that she knew any cheating was going on, but when district attorney Paul Howard announced the charges, he said without Hall the conspiracy could not have taken place.
PAUL HOWARD: Because there is a single-minded purpose and that purpose is to cheat, to manipulate the grades, what we are alleging is that she was a full participant in that conspiracy.
LOHR: The indictment says cheating took place as far back as 2005 in dozens of schools. At the same time, Beverly Hall was recognized for improving test scores across the district, and in 2009 was named superintendent of the year. She received more than half a million dollars in bonuses. But the increases in test scores seemed too high from year to year to be real. In addition, thousands of answer sheets contained eraser marks that showed where incorrect answers had been changed to correct ones.
Some accused in the cheating scandal told investigators about holding so called eraser parties where school officials would get together to cheat. Gregory Cizek is a professor at the University of North Carolina. He says this is the largest case of alleged school cheating that's been exposed so far, but Atlanta is not alone in dealing with the issue.
GREGORY CIZEK: This situation has made a lot of school districts and states stand up and take notice of the weaknesses in their own policies and procedures, the lack of leadership from the top of those systems. So I would say even before today, the situation in Atlanta has had a really pervasive effect.
LOHR: There is increasing pressure on schools and administrators to do well under the federal No Child Left Behind Act that provides penalties for schools that don't meet their yearly goals. But many education experts note the biggest damage is to students who are moved ahead but are now struggling. Professor at Georgia State University College of Education, Jami Berry, says some students have continued to fall behind.
JAMI BERRY: You take the children who are the most disadvantaged and who already are in schools that have major issues as far as funding goes, and then you pile on top of that this expectation of but we're going to report you as performing well, and to me, that's the huge cost associated with this.
LOHR: Some students are trying to catch up. But now, they may not qualify for remedial classes. Many parents are wondering how the district will recover and help students who are still behind. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.