ATLANTA — In a dramatic conclusion to what has been described as the largest cheating scandal in the nation’s history, a jury here on Wednesday convicted 11 educators for their roles in a standardized test cheating scandal that tarnished a major school district’s reputation and raised broader questions about the role of high-stakes testing in American schools. On their eighth day of deliberations, the jurors convicted 11 of the 12 defendants of racketeering, a felony that carries up to 20 years in prison. Many of the defendants — a mixture of Atlanta public school teachers, testing coordinators and administrators — were also convicted of other charges, such as making false statements, that could add years to their sentences.
Judge Jerry W. Baxter of Fulton County Superior Court ordered most of the educators jailed immediately, and they were led from the courtroom in handcuffs. Judge Baxter, who presided over a trial that began with opening statements more than six months ago, will begin sentencing hearings next week.
Sharon Davis Williams, a former research team director, after being found guilty by a Fulton County Superior Court jury. Sentencing begins next week. CreditPool photo by Kent D. Johnson
“Our entire effort in this case was simply to get our community to stop and take a look at our educational system,” District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr. said, adding, “I think because of the decision of this jury today that people will stop. I think people will stop, and they will make an assessment of our educational system.”
The dozen educators who stood trial, including five teachers and a principal, were indicted in 2013 after years of questions about how Atlanta students had substantially improved their scores on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, a standardized examination given throughout Georgia.
In 2009, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution started publishing a series of articles that sowed suspicion about the veracity of the test scores, and Gov. Sonny Perdue ultimately ordered an investigation.
The inquiry, which was completed in 2011, led to findings that were startling and unsparing: Investigators concluded that cheating had occurred in at least 44 schools and that the district had been troubled by “organized and systemic misconduct.” Nearly 180 employees, including 38 principals, were accused of wrongdoing as part of an effort to inflate test scores and misrepresent the achievement of Atlanta’s students and schools.
The investigators wrote that cheating was particularly ingrained in individual schools — at one, for instance, a principal wore gloves while she altered answer sheets — but they also said that the district’s top officials, including Superintendent Beverly L. Hall, bore some responsibility.
Investigators wrote in the report that Dr. Hall and her aides had “created a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” that had permitted “cheating — at all levels — to go unchecked for years.”
Officials said the cheating allowed employees to collect bonuses and helped improve the reputations of both Dr. Hall and the perpetually troubled school district she had led since 1999.
Dr. Hall, who died on March 2, insisted that she had done nothing wrong and that her approach to education, which emphasized data, was not to blame. “I can’t accept that there’s a culture of cheating,” Dr. Hall said in an interview in 2011. “What these 178 are accused of is horrific, but we have over 3,000 teachers.”
But a Fulton County grand jury later accused her and 34 other district employees of being complicit in the cheating. Twenty-one of the educators reached plea agreements; two defendants, including Dr. Hall, died before they could stand trial.
But 12 defendants chose to go before a jury. Testimony did not conclude until the end of February, and jurors began their deliberations on March 19.
It was a gamble. Judge Baxter warned during a plea hearing in 2014 that there would be “severe consequences” for any defendant who was convicted at trial. The gamble paid off for a single defendant, Dessa Curb, a former elementary school teacher who was acquitted on Wednesday.
“I’m thankful to God that it turned out well for me, but I’m very upset about the others,” Ms. Curb said outside the courtroom.
Defense lawyers, some of whom were clearly angered by Judge Baxter’s decision to jail the educators on Wednesday, immediately began planning appeals and said they were stunned by the verdicts.
“I respect the jury, but I believe they got it wrong,” said Robert G. Rubin, who represented Dana Evans, a former principal. He described Ms. Evans as “shocked and devastated.”
“We certainly talked about the possibility that this would happen,” he said. “I don’t think either one of us believed it would actually happen.”
Just as the defendants took a risk by standing trial, Mr. Howard had made a bet of his own when he decided to prosecute educators under a law more frequently used against organized crime figures. During three days of closing arguments last month, defense lawyers often said that Mr. Howard’s office had overreached.
And on Wednesday, even as Mr. Howard received some vindication, questions persisted about whether he should have devoted such extraordinary attention to the case.
“The jury has made a determination, and in some respects, that affirms what the prosecution has done in this case,” said William H. Thomas, a former federal prosecutor here. “For me, the real question is: Was the victory worth the candle? Have they killed a fly with the proverbial sledgehammer?”
The trial riveted Atlantans — television and radio stations interrupted programming on Wednesday afternoon to broadcast the courtroom scene — and the city’s school board said in a statement that the verdict capped “a sad and tragic chapter for Atlanta Public Schools.”
The district, which has more than 50,000 students, has in recent years created a hotline for ethics complaints to be made anonymously, ended bonuses connected to test scores and replaced employees throughout the system. A new superintendent was installed last summer.
“Challenges remain, for sure, but we are making progress every day, and there is great reason to be optimistic,” the board’s statement said.
The case unfolded at a time of pushback against what some see as the excesses of standardized testing. While the Atlanta scandal fueled some criticism, those who oppose testing also argue that the exams force teachers to narrow their lessons and may not represent what students learn. Coming amid a political groundswell against academic standards known as the Common Core, the scandal was just one factor in an increasing debate over testing and its role in education.
“People know that the test scores are flawed for a variety of reasons and that they cannot be relied on as the sole or primary factor to make high-stakes decisions,” said Robert A. Schaeffer, the public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.
But inside the Fulton County Courthouse on Wednesday afternoon, the issues of testing were decidedly more local and immediate.
“I don’t like to send anybody to jail,” Judge Baxter said after he ordered that the educators be detained until sentencing. “It’s not one of the things I get a kick out of. But they have made their bed, and they’re going to have to lie in it, and it starts today.”