March 16, 2015 / 11:30 AM / 4 years ago

Closing arguments begin in Georgia school testing scandal

ATLANTA (Reuters) - A dozen Atlanta public school educators charged with conspiring to cheat on student standardized test scores did so to boost their paychecks, a prosecutor said during closing arguments on Monday.

Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Clint Rucker told jurors the cheating scandal was “sad and it’s ugly” and that the students were the victims in the case.

“Thousands of our children were robbed of their opportunity to get a quality education,” Rucker told jurors hearing the five-month-long trial in Fulton County Superior Court.

Educators hungry for cash bonuses that higher scores would generate and the desire to keep their well-paid jobs participated in a conspiracy in 2009 to erase incorrect answers on standardized tests and create a false impression of academic success, Rucker said. He cited $300,000 in bonuses received by the late school superintendent Beverly Hall.

“They were selfish and greedy,” Rucker said of the defendants. “It was about the cash.”

Defense attorney Keith Adams told jurors there was no conspiracy to cheat and that educators were not motivated by bonuses. His client, an elementary school teacher, never received a bonus, Adams told jurors.

He accused prosecutors of threatening other educators to testify against them. “They charged people with offenses that weren’t crimes and then threatened them with extensive prison time if they didn’t plead and testify against others who denied wrongdoing,” he said.

If convicted of participating in a criminal conspiracy, the educators could face 20-year prison sentences.

Former educators who have pleaded guilty to charges in the case in return for light sentences have testified for the prosecution that they prompted students during tests and changed their answers, acting under heavy pressure from superiors to raise scores.

Defense attorneys have said some prosecution witnesses changed their statements after being offered plea deals.

In September’s opening statements, prosecutor Fani Willis said there had been almost 257 million “wrong-to-right erasures” in 2009. A state investigation in 2011 found that 38 principals and 140 teachers in the Atlanta school district were involved in cheating on 2009 tests.

Testimony revealed “a testing fixation had infected entire schools,” said Bob Schaeffer, education director for FairTest, a nonprofit group focused on limiting the use of standardized tests.

In the past five years, there have been confirmed cases of cheating on such tests in 43 states and the District of Columbia, Schaeffer said.

Jury selection in the case began last August and closing arguments are scheduled to last until Wednesday.

Editing by David Adams, Susan Heavey and Bill Trott

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