Christopher Waller, the “poster child” for the Atlanta Public Schools testing scandal, testified Monday he orchestrated cheating at Parks Middle School and then kept quiet about it at the direction of superiors.
Waller freely admitted orchestrating cheating on standardized tests over a four-year period when he served as principal at Parks Middle. He also told jurors that when questions about cheating surfaced, the message from his direct supervisor was loud and clear: keep your mouth shut.
With a touch of nostalgia, if not irony, Waller took the stand wearing a black sweater vest with the Parks Middle School emblem over his heart that included the slogan “Eliminating The Achievement Gap.”
Waller provided testimony against Michael Pitts, a former School Reform Team executive director and one of a dozen former educators on trial. Pitts ignored Waller’s suspicions of test cheating at feeder elementary schools and threatened to make things more difficult if Waller wouldn’t stop talking about it, Waller testified.
Before a wrong-to-right erasure analysis flagged more classrooms at Parks for suspiciously high test scores than any other school in the state, Parks was celebrated by then-Superintendent Beverly Hall as a model for student achievement.
“It’s no secret I was the poster child” for student achievement, Waller testified. “Dr. Hall promoted me, she lauded me. She held me up as a banner, a flag. … Consequently, I also became the poster child for the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating scandal.”
Waller was among 35 defendants indicted in the test-cheating scandal, charged with racketeering and four other felonies. In February, he pleaded guilty to a single felony count — false statements and writings. He was sentenced to five years on probation, ordered to perform 1,000 hours of community service and required to pay $50,000 in court costs, fines and restitution. He also agreed to testify for the prosecution.
Waller continues his testimony Tuesday with Pitts’ lawyer, George Lawson, conducting his cross-examination. Before court adjourned Monday, Waller denied he had sexually harassed a number of subordinates but acknowledged having sexual relationships with teachers.
When Lawson asked how many, Waller paused and gazed up at the ceiling. He then looked back at Lawson and answered, “Four.”
Waller, an ordained minister, joined the Atlanta school system in February 2005. At age 32, he was the youngest principal in the district.
At the time, Parks was at risk of closure for having repeatedly failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress, a benchmark for student achievement based largely on standardized test scores. It also failed to meet the even-more demanding APS test targets, meaning Parks’ staff was consigned to the bleachers at the school district’s annual convocation. “It was almost like having leprosy,” Waller said of the humiliating experience.
Subsequently, Waller summoned his assistant principal and reading coach and told them the school could not meet test targets. “I knew that we were in trouble,” Waller testified.
It was during that conversation when an agreement was reached to use “human intervention” to change test answers, Waller said. From 2006 to 2009, rampant cheating occurred at Parks, often when Waller took the school’s testing coordinator out to long lunches while teachers gained access to answer sheets and made corrections.
Waller said his school would never meet the targets because students from the feeder schools, such as Gideons Elementary and Dunbar Elementary, were performing far below grade level even though they had scored well on standardized tests. Some of these students had exceeded expectations on their Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, he said.
Waller said he told Pitts that this showed cheating had to be going on at the elementary school level.
But Pitts told his principal to stop “slandering” elementary school teachers, Waller testified. If Waller refused to stop talking about it, Pitts warned, Parks would receive only the “lowest-performing kids” from the feeder schools, Waller testified.
Waller said he got the message.
“I closed my mouth,” he testified. “It wasn’t helping. It was actually hurting.”
On another occasion, when Pitts and Waller walked through Parks, they saw a student who was misbehaving because he couldn’t keep up with his class’s reading lesson, Waller said.
“That’s one of your ‘exceeds kids’ from Gideons,” Waller said he told Pitts.
Pitts just “laughed the way he laughed” and then said, “Sometimes kids just test well,” Waller testified.
Waller explained to jurors: “Just not having a good test day and not being able to read are two different things.”
Test-cheating at Parks became glaringly apparent in 2008 when almost all of the school’s seventh-grade students had perfect standardized science test scores, Waller said.
Pitts told Waller to call Lester McKee, the APS research, planning and accountability director, Waller said. During the call, McKee said, “(Expletive) happens and sometimes when it happens, it’s not always bad. Let’s see if anyone else says something,” Waller testified.
Waller said he called Pitts back and relayed what McKee had told him. “(Pitts) told me to keep my mouth shut and let’s see what happens,” Waller testified.
Later, when asked if Parks’ students had been cheated, Waller said, “I’ve struggled with that question. … There was cheating at Parks, but I’m not ready to say the children were cheated.”
Waller acknowledged his school lost out on federal funding earmarked for low-achieving students but said private grants helped pay for supplemental learning, such as martial arts, tutorials, music lessons and out-of-state trips for students.
Waller did, however, admit to “a moral lapse in judgment.”
“It wasn’t the right thing to do,” he said. “At the time, I had no concept I was hurting anyone. … I had no concept it could be construed to be criminal. I know differently today.”