ATLANTA — Educators at nearly four dozen Atlanta elementary and middle schools cheated on standardized tests by either helping students or changing the answers once exams were handed in, according to the results of a yearlong state investigation released Tuesday.
The report said that 178 teachers and principals cheated, though only 82 educators actually confessed to misconduct dating as far back as 2001 and affecting thousands of school children, according to a synopsis handed out by Gov. Nathan Deal's office. More than half of the district's 100 schools were examined, and 44 of those had cheating, the synopsis said.
The investigators also found a "culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation" in the school district over the cheating allegations, which lead to educators lying about the cheating or destroying documents to cover it up, according to the synopsis. School officials had "warnings" as early as 2005 that there was cheating on standardized tests, but those signals "were ignored," according to the synopsis.
Deal would not give out any further details or release the voluminous report because he said it contains "very specific information" about educators. The results of the investigation are being forwarded to prosecutors, and many of the cases could lead to criminal charges, he said.
"Nothing is more important to the future of our state than ensuring that today's students receive a first class education and integrity in testing is a necessary piece of that equation," Deal said. "When educators have failed to uphold the public trust and students are harmed in the process, there will be consequences."
All educators in the report also will be referred to the state Professional Standards Commission, which licenses teachers in Georgia, to determine whether they should have their licenses suspended or revoked, Deal said. The district has 6,000 employees, half of which are teachers.
Interim Atlanta schools superintendent Erroll Davis said in a news conference later Tuesday that those responsible for the cheating will "not be put in front of children again." Davis took over the 50,000-student district Friday after former chief Beverly Hall retired.
He said he had not yet seen a full copy of the investigators' report.
"It's clear this is to involve the removal in a very short period of time of those who have created or helped created or participated in or should have halted this scandal," Davis said.
Atlanta school board chairwoman Brenda Muhammad said she was "devastated" by the results of the probe.
"As a mother to many mothers sitting out here, I am very upset, very angry," she said. "Many of our children have been cheated, and that, I think, is the most sinful thing that we can do to our children because they look to us as adults. This board is committed to making sure that this never, ever, ever happens again."
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed called the report "a dark day" for the city's school, which are more than three-fourths poor children.
"There is no doubt that systemic cheating occurred on a widespread basis in the school system," Reed said in a prepared statement. "Further, there is no question that a complete failure of leadership in the Atlanta Public School system hurt thousands of children who were promoted to the next grade without meeting basic academic standards."
The state investigation was launched last year by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue following what he called "woefully inadequate" internal investigations at the Atlanta and Dougherty County school districts.
Those were spurred on by a state audit earlier in the year that showed high numbers of erasures on standardized tests at 74 schools across the state. The audit looked at the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, which are used to measure whether the state meets federal benchmarks.
Dougherty County was later dropped from the investigation because a Deal spokeswoman said the governor was satisfied with the district's investigation.
A number of other urban school districts and states have been caught up in cheating scandals in the last several years, including Baltimore and Houston, and Texas, Michigan and Florida.
Problems have mounted, some experts say, as teachers and school administrators — particularly those in low-income districts — bow to the pressure of the federal No Child Left Behind requirements and see cheating as the only way to avoid sanctions. Under the law, failing schools must offer extra tutoring, allow parents to transfer their children to higher performing schools and fire teachers and administrators who don't pass muster.
Earlier Tuesday The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, citing officials, reported that investigators had concluded that former Superintendent Beverly Hall either knew or should have known about the cheating. Deal declined to answer questions about Hall and what the report says about the superintendent, who retired last week.
Hall's attorney, Richard Deane, told The Associated Press that investigators have not shared the report with him. Hall was unavailable for comment.
For parents like Shawnna Hayes-Tavares, who has three children in Atlanta schools, the results of the state investigation are disheartening. She said her son attended one of the suspect schools, and his test scores dropped dramatically when he transferred to another school, suggesting his earlier scores had been inflated.
"We are appalled," Hayes-Tavares said about the state report. "It's criminal."
Associated Press writer Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this report.
Dorie Turner can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/dorieturner