Kristina Torres, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 12, 2010
A few dozen of their elementary school students had just finished high-stakes summer retests–exams first taken in spring but not passed. With just a glance at the answer sheets, Atherton Elementary School Principal James Berry and Assistant Principal Doretha Alexander saw they were in trouble.
“We cannot not make AYP,” Alexander said. Not making AYP, or adequate yearly progress, meant not meeting a required federal benchmark. These students, all fifth-graders, also faced being held back if they did not pass.
“OK,” Berry answered. He pulled a pencil from a cup on Alexander’s desk. “I want you to call the answers to me.”
With that, he began to erase the students’ answers.
State officials announced Wednesday that 191 schools–10 percent of Georgia’s public elementary and middle schools–will be investigated for possible cheating on state tests. It was the second time in as many years that the state’s testing program has come under fire.
The first was last year, when Berry and Alexander got swept up in a groundbreaking audit by the state that included an “erasure analysis” of student answer sheets. In the subsequent scandal, officials found tampering at three other elementary schools besides Atherton, including those in Atlanta and Fulton and Glynn counties.
Both Berry and Alexander signed affidavits. Berry admits to erasing and replacing answers; Alexander says she called out the correct answers to Berry but did not personally alter tests. Both also initially denied that they had knowledge of improper activity during the administration of the tests at their school, according to the files.
Their overzealousness was clear from the start.
In the fall of 2008, prior to the state’s investigation, the AJC published an analysis that showed improbable gains at some schools on tests taken first in the spring and then in the summer. One of those schools was Atherton, where half of the DeKalb school’s fifth-graders failed a yearly state test in the spring. When the 32 students took retests, not only did every one of them pass–26 scored at the highest level. At the time, Berry told the paper that he knew of no problems with test security.
“I really didn’t pay much attention to the amount of erasing that he was doing,” Alexander said in her affidavit, according to the files. “I think there was a total of about 32 tests administered. He told me that he needed for 26 students to pass for us to make AYP.”
Denials, then confessions
According to the files, both “adamantly denied” to state investigators that they cheated or knew of any irregularities. Only after the state made its findings public the following June did both confess to DeKalb school officials.
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