Area director Tamara Cotman rebuffed a teacher who reported she’d been given standardized test answer sheets — and the teacher was out of a job soon afterward, according to testimony Friday in the first trial of a defendant in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal.
Mary Gordon, who taught at Turner Middle School, said Cotman told her “they just do that at Turner” when asked about the answer sheets. Then Gordon’s principal put her on an improvement plan, and Gordon quit out of frustration, ending a 29-year career.
Gordon was testifying for the prosecution to back up charges alleging Cotman harassed and demoted a principal who she believed reported to the school board that Cotman gave instructions for school employees to tell cheating scandal investigators to “go to hell.”
Cotman is on trial in Fulton County Superior Court for trying to influence a witness, but she also is one of 35 former administrators and teachers, including Cotman’s former boss, Superintendent Beverly Hall, who later will be tried on criminal charges for allegedly changing students’ answers on standardized tests. Cotman is going on trial before the other defendants because her attorney requested a speedy trial on the single count of influencing a witness.
“We’re going to prove to you that this defendant knew there was cheating going on and she did nothing about it,” Clint Rucker, an assistant district attorney, said in his opening statement. “Those who told the truth got punished.”
Cotman’s attorney, Benjamin Davis, didn’t make an opening statement, reserving his time to do so until after the prosecution finishes presenting its case.
“I believe in my client’s innocence,” Davis said after the trial adjourned for the day. “We believe so far that the state hasn’t proved anything, so I didn’t see a need to give a statement.”
Gordon testified that a literacy coach interrupted her class on mythology in fall 2009 and told her to give a test that prepares students for the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, the standardized test on which it was later found cheating occurred. Gordon asked why she couldn’t complete the mythology unit, and the literacy coach said it came from Cotman’s office.
The coach left 80 answer sheets in Gordon’s classroom, she said.
“I asked the question, ‘What do you expect me to do with this?’ and I was never told the word ‘cheating,’ but that’s what it was,” Gordon said.
Cotman is accused of harassing former Scott Elementary School Principal Jimmye Hawkins, who attended a meeting where Cotman handed out memos intended for investigators labeled, “go to hell.”
After the school board received an anonymous complaint about the meeting, Cotman targeted Hawkins by moving her to a lower-paying teaching position in a different school, Rucker said.
Hawkins is expected to testify later in the trial, as is former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who ordered the state investigation of cheating. The prosecution didn’t produce any evidence on the first day of trial showing specifically how Cotman allegedly harassed Hawkins.
In other testimony Friday, Kathleen Mathers, the former executive director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, said improvements on standardized test scores at many of the 21 schools under Cotman’s authority were astronomically unlikely.
“It’s sort of like losing 30 pounds in a week. It would be great if you could do that, but no one’s really figured out how to do that,” she said.
Another witness testifying Friday, Keylina Clark, said both her son and her niece were given answers when they took the CRCT.
When Clark complained to Cotman, she said, Cotman said the cheating didn’t happen in her son’s case and that Clark’s concerns about her niece wouldn’t be addressed because she didn’t have custody.
“She didn’t show no type of concern at all,” Clark said. “I feel like my son was cheated out of his education because he didn’t get the proper help he needed.”
The son testified Friday that during his second-grade standardized testing at Blalock Elementary, a teacher would whisper the answers or make shapes of letters with her fingers to indicate whether students should bubble in A, B, C or D.
The niece told jurors that in fifth-grade summer school, a teacher wrote the question numbers and the answers on the blackboard for the class to see and copy.
Cotman’s trial is the first since widespread cheating began to be uncovered by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008. In all, a state investigation found that 185 educators cheated or should have known about it.
This trial could preview the bigger conspiracy and racketeering trial of all the Atlanta Public School defendants, which is scheduled for May 2014, with prosecutors outlining how cheating happened on such a broad scale.
The 2011 state investigation concluded that cheating occurred at 44 schools so that educators could avoid losing their jobs if their students underperformed, while earning bonuses for their students’ unearned successes.
How we got the story
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first investigated improbable improvements on standardized tests in 2008 and then conducted a computer analysis of schools with unusual changes in test scores in 2009. Because of the AJC’s reporting, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement conducted an erasure analysis on all Criterion-Referenced Competency Test answer sheets statewide. A state investigation in 2011 found that 185 teachers and administrators in Atlanta Public Schools cheated on the CRCT at 44 schools. Nearly two years later, Fulton County prosecutors indicted 35 educators on conspiracy charges. Former area director Tamara Cotman is the first of those 35 educators to face trial.