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More Test-Cheating Stories Come to Light as Atlanta Trial Continues

By guest blogger Madeline Will

As the fourth week of the trial for the Atlanta cheating scandal stretches on, former educators on the witness stand have told tales of betrayal and guilt as they detailed how they altered students' test answers to inflate academic performance.

A dozen former teachers and administrators in the Atlanta school district are standing trial on a series of charges for their alleged roles in inflating students' test scores on Georgia's standardized tests. The high-profile trial started at the end of September (almost 18 months after 35 former teachers and administrators were indicted by a Fulton County grand jury) and is expected to last several months.

The district's then-superintendent Beverly Hall, once recognized as national superintendent of the year, is also charged in the case but is not currently standing trial because she is undergoing treatments for cancer. Among other things, prosecutors allege that Hall set high academic targets that school leaders were pressured into meeting—and that pay bonuses and prestige were on the line. 

This week, much of the focus of the trial has been on defendant Tabeeka Jordan, a former assistant principal at Deerwood Academy.  A retired teacher at the school, Lavonia Ferrell, who also served as the school's testing coordinator, said she changed students' test answers to help out Jordan, who was her friend. In turn, former teacher Margaret Merkerson said she changed students' answers to help out her friend Ferrell. 

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Ferrell recounted a scene in 2008 when she said Jordan asked her to correct tests for the number of students who needed to pass in order for the school to meet federal Annual Yearly Progress goals—21. Ferrell, Jordan, and Merkerson corrected the 21 tests together, saying that they'd probably go to jail for what they were doing, Ferrell testified.

"My view is that we were trying to do the right thing but it was all wrong," she said.

This happened again in 2009, when Jordan said the answers needed to be changed so the school could meet district testing targets as well as AYP, Ferrell testified. 

Merkerson had previously testified that when she changed the students' answers in 2009, she wore plastic gloves because she "didn't like the feeling that (she) had."

But during the cheating investigations that later unfolded, the three friends turned against each other, according to the AJC. Merkerson secretly recorded phone calls to Ferrell to implicate her in the scandal at the request of state special agents. And Ferrell testified that she turned on Jordan when an investigator from the district attorney's office gave her a final chance to tell the truth. 

Neither Ferrell nor Merkerson was charged in the scandal.

Jordan has previously denied telling Merkerson and Ferrell to cheat on the tests and said she would have reported them if she knew what they were doing. This week, defense lawyers suggested Merkerson and Ferrell were testifying against Jordan now so they wouldn't be charged and could keep their pensions.

Jordan's lawyer, Akil Secret, asked Ferrell how she could be trusted after she had previously lied. 

Ferrell sobbed on the stand, according to AJC: "I don't have any more reason to lie. It's been seven years. ... What else can you tell after you've told the truth? What can you say to make people believe you?"

Last week, the prosecution focused on the role of a former regional director in the scandal. The week before, a former principal changed his testimony on the witness stand and how teachers described how they would meet to change test answers. The trial is heating up, so follow AJC's daily coverage

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