By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Jurors who have heard nearly six months of testimony began deliberating on Thursday to decide if a dozen former Atlanta public school educators are guilty of conspiring to change standardized test scores to secure promotions and cash bonuses.
The educators were among 35 teachers, principals and administrators indicted in 2013 in one of the largest test cheating scandals in the country.
The 12 defendants who opted to stand trial rather than plead guilty face prison sentences of up to 20 years if convicted of participating in a criminal conspiracy.
Judge Jerry Baxter told jurors on Wednesday to expect lengthy deliberations and urged them to get some rest, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper reported.
A state investigation in 2011 found that 38 principals and 140 teachers in the Atlanta school district were involved in cheating on 2009 tests. Educators erased incorrect answers and, in some cases, instructed children to change their answers, the investigation found.
Fulton County Assistant District Attorney Clint Rucker told jurors during closing arguments on Monday that educators facing charges were greedy for higher paychecks and robbed thousands of children of a quality education.
Beverly Hall, a former school superintendent who was among those indicted, received $300,000 in bonuses, Rucker said.
Hall's case was put on hold for medical reasons, and she died of advanced breast cancer earlier this month. She was named national superintendent of the year by the American Association of School Administrators the same year prosecutors say widespread cheating took place.
Defense lawyers said over the last several days that there was never an orchestrated effort to cheat.
Attorney Keith Adams said his client, a former elementary school teacher, was not motivated by bonuses and never received one.
Adams accused prosecutors of charging the educators with offenses that were not crimes and then threatening them with prison time if they did not cooperate with the state's case.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Von Ahn)