By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - The trial of a dozen former Atlanta educators charged in one of the nation's largest school test-cheating scandals began on Monday, a case receiving wide attention as similar cheating accusations blemish schools across the United States.
Lawyers say it could take several months to try the group of former teachers, principals and administrators, accused of conspiring to alter students' standardized test scores after a state investigation uncovered cheating at 44 Atlanta public schools in 2009.
Investigators said the educators inflated test results to boost their bonuses in a data-driven environment.
The high-profile Atlanta case is one in a string of cheating cases affecting 39 states over the last five years, said Bob Schaeffer, education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest, which seeks to end the misuse of standardized tests.
“I think the nation closely follows the Atlanta investigation and trial to determine the scope of the problem,” said Schaeffer.
Trial testimony in Atlanta will help shed light on what may motivate educators to cheat, he added.
In all, 35 public educators were indicted in the scandal. Most of them have resolved their cases by pleading guilty.
If convicted, the dozen former educators now on trial could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.
Former Atlanta school Superintendent Beverly Hall was due to be among the final group headed to trial, but her case was delayed indefinitely after advanced breast cancer left her too sick to attend court proceedings.
Hall was named national superintendent of the year by the American Association of School Administrators the same year prosecutors contend widespread cheating took place. She received a $78,000 bonus in 2009 from the school system for improving its test scores, prosecutors said.
The trial “will generate lots of information on her role in creating the climate in which cheating took place,” Schaeffer said.
(Reporting by David Beasley; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)