By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - A sweeping test-cheating scheme orchestrated by public educators in Atlanta who were eager for cash bonuses and promotions shortchanged the faltering students who needed help the most, prosecutors said as the educators went to trial on Monday.
A dozen former teachers, principals and administrators conducted a "cleverly disguised conspiracy" in 2009 to erase incorrect answers and, in some cases, instructed children to change their answers, Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Fani Willis told the jury.
Educators also sometimes broke open sealed copies of standardized tests ahead of time and taught the answers to children, Willis said as opening statements began in the case over one of the country's largest school test-cheating scandals.
Students who needed additional instruction lost out due to improperly inflated test scores, she added.
"They were the biggest losers," Willis told jurors.
The former educators could face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty of conspiring to alter standardized test scores to boost their bonuses.
Thirty-five educators, including award-winning former Atlanta School Superintendent Beverly Hall, were indicted by a grand jury last year in one of the country's largest school test-cheating scandals.
The criminal charges followed a state investigation that uncovered the cheating at 44 Atlanta public schools five years ago.
Most of the former educators resolved their cases by pleading guilty. Hall was to be among those standing trial, but her case was delayed indefinitely after advanced breast cancer left her too sick to attend court proceedings.
After a nearly six-week jury selection process, the trial itself is expected to last several months, prosecutors have said.
(Reporting by David Beasley; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Susan Heavey)