Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal

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Several teachers and principals in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) district cheated on state-administered standardized tests in 2009. The scandal was exposed and the subsequent trial in 2014–2015 saw national attention.


In 2009, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published analyses of Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) results which showed statistically unlikely test scores, including extraordinary gains or losses in a single year.[1] An investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) released in July 2011 indicated that 44 out of 56 schools cheated on the 2009 CRCT.[2] One hundred and seventy-eight educators were implicated in correcting answers entered by students.[3] Of these, 35 educators were indicted and all but 12 took plea deals; the remaining 12 went to trial.[4] The size of the scandal has been described as one of the largest in United States education history.[3][5][6]

The scandal thrust the debate over using high-stakes testing to hold educators accountable, mandated by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, into the national spotlight.[7] Teachers who confessed to cheating blamed "inordinate pressure" to meet targets set by the district and said they faced severe consequences such as a negative evaluation or termination if they didn't.[7]

Prior to the scandal, the APS had been lauded for making significant gains in standardized test scores. Between 2002 and 2009, eighth-graders' scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test jumped 14 points, the highest of any urban area.[6] Superintendent Beverly Hall, who served from 1999 to 2010, was named Superintendent of the Year in 2009.[8] The GBI's report said Hall "knew or should have known" about the scandal.[2] Hall's lawyer has denied she had any knowledge of cheating practices.[6] In 2013, she was indicted in relation to her role in the matter.[9] On September 6, 2013, Tamara Cotman, an executive director, represented by Benjamin Davis, was found not guilty of influencing a witness.[10]


The trial began on September 29, 2014, presided over by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter. It was the longest criminal trial in Georgia history, lasting eight months.[11] The lead prosecutor was Fani Willis.[12] Before the end of the trial, the superintendent at the center of the scandal, Beverly Hall, died of breast cancer, aged 68.[13]

On April 1, 2015, eleven of the twelve defendants were convicted on racketeering charges under the Georgia RICO Act.[14] Dessa Curb was the only teacher found not guilty on all charges.[15]


  • Donald Bullock, former testing coordinator: Weekends in jail for 6 months, $5,000 fine, 5 years of probation and 1,500 hours of community service.
  • Sharon Davis-Williams, Tamara Cotman, and Michael Pitts: 20 years in prison, to serve seven, $25,000 fine and 2,000 hours of community service.
    • Sentences for Cotman, Pitts & Davis-Williams were reduced from 7 to 3 years and fines to $10,000.[4]
    • Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts are former school reform team executive directors.
  • Dana Evans: 5 years in prison, one to serve, and 1,000 hours of community service.
  • Angela Williamson and Tabeeka Jordan, former Deerwood Academy assistant principal: 5 years in prison, two to serve, $5,000 fine and 1,500 hours of community service.
  • Diane Buckner-Webb, former Dunbar Elementary teacher: 5 years in prison, one to serve, $1,000 fine, 1,000 hours in community service and first offender treatment.
  • Theresia Copeland, former Benteen Elementary testing coordinator: 5 years in prison, one to serve, $1,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service.
  • Pamela Cleveland, former Dunbar Elementary teacher: 5 years' probation, home confinement for a year from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. and community service.
  • Shani Robinson, former first-grade Dunbar Elementary teacher: one year in prison, 4 years of probation, $1,000 fine, 1,000 hours of community service.[16][17]

Nine of the 11 educators convicted of racketeering appealed. Two of those nine, Tamara Cotman Johnson and Angela Williamson, went directly to the appeals court, lost, and reported for prison in October 2018.[18]

In popular culture[edit]

Jon Stewart, the then-host of The Daily Show, compared the cheating scandal to Wall Street scandal.

Art & adaptation[edit]

Wrong Answer[edit]

Ryan Coogler will work with Michael B. Jordan for a fourth time in the upcoming film Wrong Answer, based on the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal.[19][20]


The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal was an inspiration for Ranked, a musical about academic pressure in school. Kyle Holmes (book) and David Taylor Gomes (music & lyrics) cite the scandal as one of their main inspirations for a storyline that featured adults cheating on behalf of students.[21] The show opened at Granite Bay High School three weeks after Operation Varsity Blues charges were made public. The timing of the musical's debut in relation to the scandal was serendipitous, and earned the high school national attention.[22]


  1. ^ Vogell, Heather; Perry, John (October 19, 2009). "Are drastic swings in CRCT scores valid?". Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved October 13, 2011.
  2. ^ a b Flock, Elizabeth (July 11, 2011). "APS (Atlanta public schools) embroiled in cheating scandal". The Washington Post. Retrieved October 13, 2011.
  3. ^ a b Johnson, Patrik (July 5, 2011). "America's biggest teacher and principal cheating scandal unfolds in Atlanta". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved October 13, 2011.
  4. ^ a b Ellis, Ralph; Lopez, Elwyn (April 30, 2015). "Judge reduces sentences for 3 educators in Atlanta cheating scandal".
  5. ^ Resmovits, Joy (July 5, 2011). "Atlanta Public Schools Shaken By Cheating Report". The Huffington Post. Retrieved October 13, 2011.
  6. ^ a b c Koebler, Jason (July 7, 2011). "Educators Implicated in Atlanta Cheating Scandal". U.S. News. Retrieved October 13, 2011.
  7. ^ a b Sarrio, Jaime (July 10, 2011). "Cheating scandal adds fuel to debate over high-stakes tests". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved October 13, 2011.
  8. ^ Vogell, Heather (November 20, 2010). "Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall to step down". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved October 13, 2011.
  9. ^ Staff report (March 29, 2013). Ex-APS Superintendent Beverly Hall, others indicted. WSBTV
  10. ^ Niesse, Mark (September 6, 2013). "Jury finds Cotman not guilty in first Atlanta cheating trial". Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved September 29, 2014.
  11. ^ Robinson, Shani; Simonton, Anna (2019). None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 9780807022207.
  12. ^ "Fani Willis will become the next Fulton County DA, beating six-term incumbent Paul Howard". 12 August 2020.
  13. ^ Judd, Alan. "Beverly Hall dies; criminal case — and her legacy — unresolved". Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved May 3, 2018.
  14. ^ "11 Atlanta educators convicted in cheating scandal". USA Today. WXIA-TV. 1 April 2015. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  15. ^ Murphy, Rodney Harris, Adam. "Dessa Curb only educator found not guilty in APS cheating trial". Archived from the original on 4 April 2015.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  16. ^ Cook, Rhonda (September 1, 2015). "UPDATE: New mother gets prison, former principal jail in APS case". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
  17. ^ Michel Martin (February 16, 2019). "Former Teacher Blames Education Policymakers For Atlanta Cheating Scandal". NPR News. Retrieved 17 February 2019.
  18. ^ McCray, Vanessa (Jan 24, 2019). "Judge in APS cheating trial to remain on case as six seek retrial". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
  19. ^ Dockterman, Eliana (27 November 2015). "Creed Director Ryan Coogler on His Chemistry With Michael B. Jordan". Time. Retrieved 13 January 2016.
  20. ^ McNary, Dave (7 June 2017). "Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Coogler to Reteam on Education Scandal Movie 'Wrong Answer'". Variety. Retrieved 17 February 2019.
  21. ^ "Testing the limits - Stage Pick of the Week - Arts&Culture - April 4, 2019". Sacramento News & Review. 3 April 2019. Retrieved 2020-07-14.
  22. ^ "A Dystopian High School Musical Foresaw The College Admissions Scandal". Retrieved 2020-07-14.

External links[edit]