A career educator Thursday became the first principal to plead guilty in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating scandal and the first defendant to be convicted of a felony.
Armstead Salters, who oversaw C.L. Gideons Elementary School for three decades, admitted he directed his teachers to change wrong answers on standardized tests to right ones.
It was an “open secret” throughout APS that cheating was going on at Gideons for years, Fulton County prosecutor Clint Rucker said during the court hearing. Even so, Gideons “received constant praise and accolades” from top APS administrators, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall, who also is charged in the case, Rucker said.
Shortly after Salters entered his plea, the third former teacher from Humphries Elementary School also pleaded guilty. Eight APS defendants now stand convicted. The 26 who remain are scheduled to go to trial next spring unless more enter pleas before then.
Salters, 74, began his teaching career in 1966 as a high school science teacher. In 1981, he was promoted to be Gideons’ principal, a position he held until 2010.
The pressure to meet testing targets was “excessive and extreme,” Salters said in a letter of apology, a condition placed on him by prosecutors as part of his plea. It was unrelenting and “created a toxic culture throughout APS where all that mattered was test scores, even if ill-gotten,” Salters’ plea agreement said.
“I placed the concern of the school administration for test results and test scores above the interests of the children,” he said.
Salters disclosed to prosecutors how he coordinated test cheating and explained why he did it. Gideons, located in southwest Atlanta, had a challenging, transient student population after nearby housing projects closed down in the early 2000s. Its students performed slightly below average in reading, language arts and math.
Salters’ plea agreement said he knew that Hall, after becoming superintendent, began firing teachers whose schools did not meet desired results. The superintendent “publicly boasted about this fact on many occasions,” only increasing the pressure to make sure his school did well, the plea agreement said.
Test tampering began occurring at Gideons as early as 2005 and continued until 2009, Salters told prosecutors. This was possible because the school’s testing coordinator, Sheridan Rogers, another defendant in the case, gave teachers access to their students’ tests so they could correct wrong answers, Salters said.
The former principal said he told teachers to go see Rogers and admitted that he told Rogers, “Let them have the tests.”
Salters agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and is expected to testify against Rogers at the upcoming trial.
Salters pleaded guilty to a single felony count of making false statements and writings. This was because he signed and then submitted the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests taken by his students and gave assurances there had been no ethical breaches in the testing procedure.
Salters was sentenced to two years on probation and ordered to complete 1,000 hours of community service. He also agreed to return $2,000 in bonuses he received.
Wendy Ahmed, a former Humphries Elementary teacher, followed Salters to the courtroom podium. She admitted to telling her students the correct answers while they took the 2009 CRCT.
Ahmed pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of obstruction. She was sentenced to a year on probation and ordered to perform 250 hours of community service and return $500 in bonus money.
Standing before Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter, Ahmed said she could not find the words to express her shame.
“I made poor decisions that did more harm than good to my students,” Ahmed said, her voice trembling. “I took so much pride in teaching the children of Atlanta, yet I allowed the fear of administrators to alter my beliefs and values.”
Baxter has ordered lawyers representing the remaining APS defendants to appear before him Friday to see whether they have checked in with prosecutors to determine what deals are being offered.
Gerald Griggs, an attorney who represents former Dobbs Elementary teacher Angela Williamson, said his client will fight the charges at trial.
“It’s a sad day in Atlanta to hear the punishments that are being handed out now to individuals who accepted responsibility for a systemic issue,” said Griggs, who observed Thursday’s pleas. “The one constant is the pressure all these teachers faced. Once the trial is underway, we will truly know the scope of that pressure.”