Former APS teacher Stacey Smith in court

Teachers confess in first Atlanta cheating trial

A former Atlanta teacher tearfully told jurors Monday she gave in to pressure to cheat on her students’ tests, admitting what years of investigations have sought to prove.

“I feel horrible,” said Stacey Smith, who took deep breaths and wiped tears away with tissue before answering questions about what she’d done. “I did my babies a disservice.”

Smith’s confession comes more than two years after state investigators found widespread cheating in Atlanta Public Schools on standardized tests in 2009. Their work was launched by Gov. Sonny Perdue, who also became emotional as he testified Monday.

“These kids only get one shot,” said Perdue, his voice breaking. “These kids needed integrity in their lives, and they needed to know how they were doing and how they were stacking up. … If they think they’re doing fine and getting passed along, they’re going to get to high school and find they can’t perform.”

Smith was one of three ex-teachers to testifiy that they changed test answers. They were called to the witness stand in the trial of former Atlanta regional schools director Tamara Cotman, the first defendant in the scandal to go to court. Cotman, who has pleaded not guilty, and 34 other former educators, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall, face criminal charges.

Smith, who taught third grade and first grade at Usher-Collier Heights Elementary School, said testing coordinator Donald Bullock dropped off test booklets at the end of a day of testing in 2009 on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

She broke down in court as she admitted erasing incorrect answers and filling in the correct answers.

“He came to me and asked me if I wanted to make sure my children did well on the test,” Smith said. “I didn’t want to lose my job. I was told that I was not a tenured teacher, that I could be replaced at any moment.”

One of Smith’s co-workers, former fourth-grade teacher Diane Green, said she probably would have been put on an improvement plan if she didn’t change test answers. She said Bullock also gave her students’ test booklets.

“He gave them to us when they should have been locked up,” Green said. “I wanted to be recognized like everyone else, so I did what I did.”

A third teacher at the school, Mary Ware, said Bullock asked her to check tests that had already been completed to make sure students were meeting expectations.

“It was just the pressure,” said Ware. “I’m very very sorry I did it. I’m embarassed about it.”

Bullock, who is among the 35 charged in the criminal case, has pleaded not guilty.

Georgia’s former governor choked up during his testimony, saying cheating gave students a false impression they were prepared for educational advancement to the next grade.

Perdue said he initially became concerned about test-tampering after seeing “amazing, almost unbelievable gains” on tests at Deerwood Academy in 2008. After the 2009 CRCT results came in, the entire state was analyzed for wrong-to-right erasures, and Atlanta’s results were among the most suspicious.

Perdue said he personally telephoned Hall to tell her about the improbable gains made at Atlanta schools. Perdue said he wanted Hall to find out what happened.

“My goal was to seek the truth,” Perdue said. “It mattered to these kids, their parents and their futures.”

But Perdue said an internal probe by APS was “woefully inadequate” and a blue-ribbon commission’s investigation also fell short.

“I got a distinct impression of stonewalling,” the former governor testified. It was as if school administrators were thinking, “If we hunker down long enough, everything will go away … things will just blow over.”

Even though some advisers were telling him not to get more involved, Perdue said, he appointed special investigators to find out what happened and ordered the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to assist with the probe.

GBI Director Vernon Keenan followed Perdue to the witness stand and testified that, initially, 60 agents were assigned to the APS case – more agents than had been assigned to any one case in his memory.

The investigation, which concluded in 2011, found that 185 teachers and administrators were involved in cheating. The investigators’ report served as a blueprint for the prosecution as it seeks criminal convictions of educators and administrators who were supposed to be working for the benefit of children.

The prosecution so far has elicited testimony accusing educators in Cotman’s north and west Atlanta jurisdiction of changing test answers to preserve their jobs, meet standards mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act and receive bonus money for their false recording of students’ successes.

Yet Cotman, who barely moved in her chair during the second day of testimony, is not charged with test cheating.

She is on trial on a single count of influencing a witness. She’s accused of harassing and demoting a former Scott Elementary School principal who attended a meeting where Cotman allegedly handed out memos intended for investigators labeled, “go to hell.” There has yet to be any testimony about this allegation.

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