Testing coordinator defends self at hearing

Former Atlanta Public Schools testing coordinator Theresia Copeland vigorously denied any involvement in the APS cheating scandal during the second day of her tribunal on Friday, disputing the account of a witness who said she saw Copeland changing answers on tests in her office after hours.

Copeland — appearing confident, and sounding at times almost casual — recounted how in 2009 at Benteen Elementary School she retrieved Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests from a sealed closet "vault" only at appropriate times and took them to her office to inventory the tests to make certain nothing was out of place and all the materials were accounted for.

Three witnesses testified Monday, the first day of the hearings, they saw Copeland rolling carts of CRCT tests before and after school when, the witnesses said, the tests should have been in the vault. One witness testified she saw Copeland through the window on her office door tampering with the tests.

"It was like materials spread on her desk, and she was like writing on them," cafeteria worker Lucrelia Craig testified. Copeland disputed the account and showed the three-person tribunal a photograph of the office door window, which is about 1 foot square and backed by mesh, making it difficult to see through.

"My desk was in the very back of the office," she said. "By looking in the window, you couldn't see anything." She disputed another witness's testimony that she had returned CRCT tests to a teacher out of order, suggesting, the witness testified, she had tampered with the tests.

Copeland said a school administrator alerted that the tests were out of order told her that was to be expected because the stack of tests contained "sample pool tests" that would have mixed up the order when she returned them.

Copeland showed emotion for the first time during the hearing when she responded during cross-examination to a question by APS attorney Jessica Smith, who asked her if she realized she was responsible for the integrity of the tests and that the school system has lost confidence in her.

"Yes," Copeland said, "but may I say something?"

Smith waved her hand and said, "Go ahead."

"I also understand you're innocent until proven guilty," said Copeland, who then started sobbing.

During morning testimony, Associate Superintendent Steve Smith was the first witness to testify that Copeland gave students answers before they took the CRCT tests. But Smith, on cross-examination by Copeland's attorney, Warren Fortson, said he had no direct knowledge that Copeland gave students correct answers.

Through the hearing, Fortson has argued prosecutors have no proof that Copeland cheated, or that cheating took place in the school system. He said their case is built entirely on statistical evidence based on an analysis by the Governor's Office of Student Achievement that found 43.1 percent of classrooms at the school had wrong to right erasures during the 2009 CRCT tests that were statistically improbable.

Copeland is the third former testing coordinator the school system is seeking to terminate for involvement in the 2009 cheating scandal in which 180 educators have been accused of cheating. As a testing coordinator, Copeland's job was to make sure the tests were not tampered with. She also was responsible for making certain teachers followed testing protocols adopted to detect and discourage cheating.

Two educators who worked with Copeland at Benteen during the cheating scandal have left the school system. Marty Cummings, who investigators said worked with Copeland in her office to change student scores on the tests, resigned in June. Principal Diana Quisenberry's contract was not renewed this year.

At the end of the hearing Friday night, the hearing officer said he didn't expect the three-person tribunal to reach a decision that day. The tribunal has five days after the conclusion to render a verdict. If the tribunal finds against Copeland, she will lose her job. If it finds in her favor, the school board will then determine whether she keeps a job with the school system.