ATLANTA: Teachers spent nights huddled in a back room, erasing wrong answers on students' test sheets and filling in the correct bubbles. At another school, struggling students were seated next to higher-performing classmates so they could copy answers.
Those and other confessions are contained in a new state report that reveals how far some Atlanta public schools went to raise test scores in the nation's largest-ever cheating scandal. Investigators concluded that nearly half the city's schools allowed the cheating to go unchecked for as long as a decade, beginning in 2001.
Administrators pressured to maintain high scores under the federal No Child Left Behind law punished or fired those who reported anything amiss and created a culture of ''fear, intimidation and retaliation,'' according to the report released earlier this month, two years after officials noticed a suspicious spike in some scores.
The report names 178 teachers and principals, and 82 of those confessed. Tens of thousands of children at the 44 schools, most in the city's poorest neighborhoods, were allowed to advance to higher grades, even though they didn't know basic concepts. One teacher told investigators the district was ''run like the mob.''
''Everybody was in fear,'' another teacher said in the report. ''It is not that the teachers are bad people and want to do it. It is that they are scared.''
For teachers and their bosses, the stakes were high: Schools that perform poorly and fail to meet certain benchmarks under the federal law can face sharp sanctions. They may be forced to offer extra tutoring, allow parents to transfer children to better schools, or fire teachers and administrators who don't pass muster.
Experts say the cheating scandal which involved more schools and teachers than any other in U.S. history led to soul-searching among other urban districts facing cheating investigations and those that have seen a rapid rise in test scores.
In Georgia, teachers complained to investigators that some students arrived at middle school reading at a first-grade level. But they said, principals insisted those students had to pass their standardized tests. Teachers were either ordered to cheat or pressured by administrators until they felt they had no choice, authorities said.
One principal forced a teacher to crawl under a desk during a faculty meeting because her test scores were low. Another principal told teachers that ''Walmart is hiring'' and ''the door swings both ways,'' the report said.
Educators named in the investigation could face criminal charges ranging from tampering with state documents to lying to investigators. And many could lose their teaching licenses.
Parents of children enrolled at the 44 schools say they are frustrated and angry.
Shawnna Hayes-Tavares said her son's test scores dropped dramatically after he transferred out of Slater Elementary. She said a testing coordinator at the new school told her the test scores could have been inflated.
The possibility that there could have been cheating ''gives me and him a false sense of security as to where he is,'' she said.
Uncertainty about her son's progress ''has not afforded us the opportunity to do more remediation in those areas of weakness,'' Hayes-Tavares said.