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Ga. principal arrested in cheating probe

Sunday, June 21, 2009

ATLANTA -- A suburban Atlanta principal who resigned during an investigation into cheating on students' standardized tests was arrested Friday and accused of altering public documents.

The school's assistant principal also turned herself in to local police Thursday night in a case that the head of a state teacher's group described as rare. School officials allege that the two changed answers on fifth-grade standardized tests to improve scores and help their school meet federal achievement standards.

Former Dekalb County principal James Berry was arrested at his home on charges of altering public documents, a felony. His assistant principal Doretha Alexander faces the same charges.

Berry, the former principal of Atherton Elementary, left the county jail Friday evening without commenting to reporters gathered outside. A jail official said his bond was $15,000. Alexander was released earlier Friday on $1,500 bond.

A state investigation released recently found that student scores on state math tests were altered at four schools in the state, including Atherton, in an effort to boost those schools' performance. Officials do not believe students were involved.

Jeff Hubbard, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said this is the first time he's heard of teachers or administrators being arrested for such offenses.

"This is one of the worst academic offenses an educator can do or be accused of because it messes with a child's future," Hubbard said.

An administrative probe into the matter by DeKalb County Schools revealed that Berry was involved in altering the tests, said district spokesman Dale Davis.

He said the district is still investigating Alexander, who has been reassigned.

Davis released a statement Friday saying the school district was surprised at the arrests and had not been notified beforehand.

It was not immediately clear whether Berry or Alexander had a lawyer.

DeKalb County Chief Assistant District Attorney Don Geary said he expects the investigation to be turned over to his office in the next few days so a decision can be made on formal charges.

Berry resigned last week, while Alexander was reassigned by district officials. Messages left at each of their homes Friday were not immediately returned.

The arrests follow a state audit that "showed very clearly that someone had intentionally changed students' answers on those tests," said Kathleen Mathers, spokeswoman of the Governor's Office of Student Achievement. The resulting higher scores helped four schools meet standards and avoid sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Schools that don't meet standards under the law must offer extra tutoring and allow parents to transfer their children to higher performing schools.

The audit found the answer sheets of the altered tests had up to 40 erasures, compared with the average of two per student on other answer sheets. Most of the answers were changed to make them correct.

Tests from schools in three other systems are also under review.


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