By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - A grand jury indicted 35 former Atlanta public school educators, including an award-winning former superintendent, on Friday for allegedly conspiring to cheat on standardized test scores to obtain cash bonuses.
Former Superintendent Beverly Hall was named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators in 2009, the same year prosecutors contend widespread cheating took place.
Hall received a $78,000 bonus that year for improving the school system's test scores, prosecutors said.
"The money she received, we are alleging, was ill gotten and it was theft," Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said at a news conference.
Besides Hall, those indicted included administrators, principals and teachers. The 65-count indictment said "test answer sheets were altered, fabricated and falsely certified."
Hall was charged with racketeering, making false statements, theft by taking and false swearing. She and others could face up to 45 years in prison if convicted, Howard said.
A state investigation of test results in 2009 found cheating in 44 of the 56 Atlanta public schools examined. The cheating was prompted primarily by pressure to meet targets in a data-driven environment, according to a investigation conducted by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal's office.
The 2009 cheating was said to include teachers erasing incorrect answers on state standardized tests.
The 2011 state report concluded that there was a "major failure of leadership throughout Atlanta Public Schools with regard to the ethical administration" of the 2009 standardized exams known as the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.
Amid the investigation, Hall stepped down after nearly 12 years as superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools. Her successor, Erroll Davis, said on Friday the school system now has extensive training and other safeguards to prevent cheating.
He said 95 percent of the school system's staff was not implicated in the scandal.
Justina Collins, the mother of an Atlanta public school student, told the news conference her daughter had trouble reading yet scored well on the standardized tests.
Collins said when she asked the superintendent about the discrepancy, Hall told her, "Your daughter is simply the kind of person who tests well."
Collins' daughter is now in the ninth grade but reads on a fifth-grade level, Howard told reporters, adding that the real victims of the cheating scandal were the children.
"Her example points out the plight of many children" in the scandal, said the prosecutor.
Richard Deane, Hall's attorney, could not be reached for comment.
(Editing by Ian Simpson and Todd Eastham)