Kate Brumback

ATLANTA: The former superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools and nearly three dozen other administrators, teachers, principals and other educators were indicted Friday in one of the nation’s largest cheating scandals.

Former Superintendent Beverly Hall faces charges including racketeering, false statements and theft. She retired just days before a state probe was released in 2011, and has previously denied the allegations. The criminal charges are the first to be filed in the investigation.

The previous state investigation in 2011 found cheating by nearly 180 educators in 44 Atlanta schools. Educators gave answers to students or changed answers on tests after they were turned in, investigators said. Teachers who tried to report it faced retaliation, creating a culture of “fear and intimidation” in the district.

The cheating came to light after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that some scores were statistically improbable. The criminal investigation lasted 21 months and the allegations date back to 2005. In addition to Hall, 34 people were indicted, including four high-level administrators, six principals and 14 teachers.

During a news conference Friday, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard provided examples of two students who demonstrated “the plight of many children” in the Atlanta school system. He described one girl, a third-grader, who failed a benchmark exam and received the worst score in her reading class in 2006. The girl was held back, yet when she took a separate assessment test not long after, she passed with flying colors.

Howard said the girl’s mother, Justina Collins, knew something was awry, but was told by school officials that the child simply was a good test-taker. The girl is now in ninth grade, reading at a fifth-grade level.

“I have a 15-year-old now who is behind in achieving her goal of becoming what she wants to be when she graduates. It’s been hard trying to help her catch up,” Collins said.

Howard would not directly answer a question about whether Hall led the conspiracy. He did say, however, “what we’re saying is that without her, this conspiracy could not have taken place. ... It would not have taken place if her actions had not made that possible.”

Most of the 178 educators named in the special investigators’ report in 2011 resigned, retired, did not have their contracts renewed or appealed their dismissals and lost. Twenty-one educators have been reinstated and three await hearings to appeal their dismissals, said Atlanta Public Schools spokesman Stephen Alford.

The tests were the key measure the state used to determine whether it met the federal No Child Left Behind law. Schools with good test scores get extra federal dollars to spend in the classroom or on teacher bonuses.

Georgia last year was granted a waiver from the federal law, which allowed schools to count a host of measures in addition to standardized tests.