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Prosecutors in Atlanta Cheating Trial Focus on Former Regional Director's Role

By guest blogger Madeline Will

In the high-profile Atlanta test-cheating trial this week, prosecutors gathered testimony about former regional director Sharon Davis-Williams, who allegedly pressured school leaders into changing students' answers on the state standardized tests and punished a whistle-blower. 

Davis-Williams is one of 12 former teachers and administrators in the Atlanta school district on trial for a series of charges regarding their alleged roles in inflating students' scores on Georgia's standardized tests. (The prosecution focused on another former regional director, Tamara Cotman, a couple of weeks ago.) 

The trial is wrapping up its fifth week and shows no sign of slowing down. The trial had started at the end of September, almost 18 months after 35 former educators were indicted by a Fulton County grand jury. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter said that at this rate the trial is going to last until "the Fourth of July of next year."

Davis-Williams oversaw several schools in the district, including Kennedy Middle School, a high-poverty school that experienced chronic disciplinary problems. The school, designated by the state as "needs improvement" in 2007, had 40 percent of its student population performing below grade level. Yet the school met its test targets—unrealistic goals set by Davis-Williams—in both 2008 and 2009 because of the test-cheating, prosecutors alleged.

Three former Kennedy educators, including the former principal Lucious Brown, previously pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the prosecution by testifying in exchange for reduced charges. The other two former educators, who admitted to helping Brown correct students' answers on tests, said Davis-Williams put intense pressure on their former principal.  

But in a bit of courtroom drama, Judge Baxter questioned Brown's credibility and deemed him a hostile witness, allowing a prosecutor to cross-examine him. (If you remember, another former principal was called a hostile witness earlier in the trial.)

Baxter said Brown did not stick to the testimony he provided in his plea agreement—which was that he felt pressure from Davis-Williams to change students' test answers. On the stand, he said the pressure came from students and parents and from himself.

"I did it. No one asked me to do it," Brown testified. "I didn't want to be associated with failure."

But the next day, Brown testified that his superiors gave him poor evaluations when students didn't perform well on state tests and he did feel that pressure.

The court also heard testimony from another witness, former technology specialist Jackie Boyce McIntyre, who said he attempted to blow the whistle on the test cheating. 

In his testimony, according to the AJC, McIntyre said he observed a teacher repeatedly pointing out answers on standardized tests to students at Perkerson Elementary School when he was serving as testing monitor. He said he made note of this on standard feedback forms and gave them to Davis-Williams, who told him to fill out new forms without that information.

McIntyre also testified that he went to Herndon Elementary School in May 2009, when some students told him their teacher had given them answers on the recent state exams (other students countered that the answers were only to sample questions).

McIntyre said he later told this to the teacher, and the teacher screamed at him. McIntyre reported the incident to Herndon's principal, and then Davis-Williams requested a meeting with him, saying he wasn't to "engage in idle chit-chat with the students."

"I felt like I had done something wrong," he said. "I was pretty much scolded."

Davis-Williams said she would follow up with an investigation, but McIntyre wasn't contacted about it—except for a memo sent from Davis-Williams a few days later, saying his complaint was "unfounded" and his "judgment was flawed." 

Finally, former Venetian Hills Elementary School principal Clarietta Davis testified that Davis-Williams knew her students were mostly performing below grade level, but didn't accept that as an excuse for not meeting the district's targets.

Davis, who pleaded guilty and is serving a two-year sentence on probation, said she changed her students' answers on the test because she was afraid she and her teachers would lose their jobs if the school didn't meet the targets.

"I regret it because I did have some smart children," she said, according to the AJC. "The children were making progress but not enough to keep up with the targets. We just couldn't."

Follow the AJC for day-to-day trial coverage. Just tuning in? Here's a round-up of what happened last week. 

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