ATLANTA — A grand jury has indicted Beverly L. Hall, the former superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools, and 34 other teachers and administrators on racketeering charges connected to one of the largest test-score cheating scandals in the country.
A Fulton County grand jury that had been hearing testimony all week handed up the indictments Friday evening.
Starting in the early 2000s, Atlanta school leaders reported impressive results: Some of the poorest elementary schools with chronically low scores were suddenly getting better grades than wealthier suburban schools.
A state investigation began in 2009 after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found steep, unexplainable rises in student test scores. The newspaper compared entire grades of students’ scores from one year to the next and found that many had improved so much that statisticians said it all but proved that cheating was responsible.
At Peyton Forest Elementary School, for example, students went from among the bottom performers statewide to among the best over the course of a year. The odds of such an improvement were less than one in 1 billion, statisticians told the paper.
In July 2011, the state’s special investigators issued a scathing 800-page report. It said cheating had occurred in 44 schools and involved 178 educators — about 3 percent of the school system’s employees — including 38 principals. Teachers operated under a ‘‘culture of fear’’ that pressured them to cheat to improve test scores or face punishment from supervisors, the report said. Altering scores on standardized tests became so common, the report said, that one school held pizza parties to correct wrong answers.
The cheating began as early as 2001 and lasted a decade, the report said. It involved the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, the state’s main test of core academic subjects for elementary and middle schools.
Investigators laid blame for the biggest standardized-test cheating scandal in the country’s history on the superintendent, Hall, who led the 50,000-student school system from 1999 until her resignation in 2011. Hall, who was hailed as National Superintendent of the Year in 2009, had ‘‘emphasized test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics,’’ the report said.
The report asserted that Hall, while not tied directly to cheating or the direct target of a subpoena, tried to contain damaging information and did not do enough to investigate allegations. As superintendent, she received hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses tied to bogus improvements in test scores.
Hall told The New York Times in 2001 that people under her had allowed cheating, but that she never had.
“I can’t accept that there is a culture of cheating,’’ she said. ‘‘What these 178 are accused of is horrific, but we have over 3,000 teachers.’’