Sandra Ward, a former Parks Middle School reading coach, testifies Thursday afternoon in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial before Judge Jerry Baxter in Fulton County Superior Court. Ward pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of obstruction and was ordered to perform 250 hours of community service and pay $5,000 in restitution. She also was sentenced as a first offender. (Kent D. Johnson, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: Kent D. Johnson
Photo: Kent D. Johnson

APS trial: Lunchtime meant test-cheating time

When it was lunchtime at Parks Middle School, it was test-cheating time.

In 2006, when students began taking the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, Parks principal Christopher Waller would give the signal that the coast was clear: He was taking the testing coordinator out to lunch, Sandra Ward, a former Parks’ reading coach, testified Thursday.

Once notified, teachers congregated in a downstairs foyer. Because testing coordinator Alfred Tiel was not there to secure the tests, teachers gained access to them and began correcting wrong answers, Ward testified. And it worked: test scores at Parks skyrocketed and the school finally met key testing goals.

Ward took the stand on the last day of the trial against 12 former Atlanta Public Schools educators before a break for the week of Thanksgiving. Testimony resumes a week from Monday.

Waller, expected to be one of the prosecution’s first witnesses after the break, took Tiel to Paschal’s and the Busy Bee for lunch during the week the CRCT was taken. The meals lasted hours, giving Parks teachers enough time to change answers.

Before the 2005-06 school year, Parks had been on the “needs improvement” list for eight straight years because it had failed to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress testing goals. The school also never met the more rigorous APS test targets, meaning school staff had to sit in the “nosebleed” section during the annual convocation, Ward said.

But Waller made it clear that would never happen again, Ward testified. The next school year, as the pressure mounted to meet targets, Waller returned stressed out from a meeting with Michael Pitts, a regional supervisor and one of the dozen defendants on trial, Ward said.

Waller called for Ward and his assistant principal to come talk to him. “You know what? We’re just going to have to cheat,” Waller said, Ward testified. “Everybody else is cheating.”

Parks made Adequate Yearly Progress for the first time that year and also began meeting APS targets, Ward said.

But a statewide analysis of wrong-to-right erasures on the 2009 CRCT showed that Parks had more classrooms flagged for having astronomically high erasures than any other school in the state. In 2010, Waller was replaced as the school’s principal and transferred to the APS central office.

Both Ward and Waller would eventually be indicted and plead guilty to their roles in the test-cheating scandal. Both agreed to testify for the prosecution.

Before stepping down from the stand, Ward provided damaging testimony against Pitts, who stands indicted for racketeering and influencing witnesses.

After Waller was removed in 2010, Pitts came to Parks to talk with staff, Ward said. At that time, the governor had appointed special investigators and GBI agents were visiting schools to interview teachers.

“If you say something now that you’ve never said before, you’re going to get yourself in trouble,” Pitts told Parks’ staff, Ward told jurors.

When prosecutor Clint Rucker asked what this meant to her, Ward replied, “Keep your mouth closed.”

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