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Alleged teacher coercion may threaten Atlanta test cheating case

By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Indictments against 35 former public educators charged in a sweeping standardized test cheating case in Atlanta appeared to be on shaky ground Wednesday after a judge said he would likely rule they were coerced into talking to investigators.

Fulton County Judge Jerry Baxter indicated his position on Tuesday at a hearing, where defense attorneys argued that the teachers and administrators were threatened with losing their jobs if they did not cooperate with the state probe.

If the judge rules that the statements were coerced, the indictments could be dismissed, said Brian Steel, an attorney for one of the educators, who he said should have been allowed to invoke the constitutional right against self-incrimination.

The Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard's office had "no comment on the matter at this time," a spokeswoman said.

The former Atlanta public school educators, including award-winning former superintendent Beverly Hall, were indicted by a grand jury last March on charges that they conspired to cheat on standardized test scores.

Hall was named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators in 2009, the same year prosecutors contend that widespread cheating took place. She received a $78,000 bonus that year for improving the school system's test scores, prosecutors said.

Hall and the other administrators, principals and teachers accused in the 65-count indictment of altering, fabricating and falsely certifying test answer sheets have all pleaded "not guilty."

A 2009 state investigation of test results in 56 Atlanta public schools found cheating in 44 of them. The cheating was prompted primarily by pressure to meet targets in a data-driven environment, according to an investigation conducted by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal's office.

If Baxter rules that the educators' statements were coerced, prosecutors might be able to appeal his ruling to the state appellate courts, Steel said.

Should they lose the appeal, prosecutors would then have to prove that the compelled statements were not used to build the criminal cases against the educators, Steel said.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Gunna Dickson)

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