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Former teacher first to be convicted in Atlanta test-cheating case

By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) - A former Atlanta public school teacher has pleaded guilty and admitted she encouraged students to change incorrect answers on a standardized test, giving prosecutors their first conviction in one of the nation's largest test-cheating scandals.

Former teacher Lisa Terry, one of 35 educators indicted this year in the cheating case, was sentenced to serve 12 months of probation after she pleaded guilty on Wednesday to a misdemeanor count of obstruction, prosecutors said.

"The truth is finally out," Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said in a statement. "There was, in fact, cheating going on in the Atlanta Public School system."

Prosecutors had failed to win a conviction in the first trial stemming from the scandal, which rocked the school system after teachers, principals and administrators were accused of inflating test results to boost their bonuses.

In September, a jury acquitted Tamara Cotman, a former school system area director, of charges of influencing a witness, who claimed she had urged principals to tell investigators to "go to hell."

Terry, who has 19 years of teaching experience, said in an apology letter on Wednesday that she cheated "out of fear" that she would receive a poor job-performance evaluation or be fired if her fourth grade students' test scores did not improve.

"I directed students to go back and check their work, which allowed them to make corrections on their answers," Terry said in her letter to the court.

Terry was ordered to perform 250 hours of community service and pay $500 in restitution for the bonus money she received due to her students' improved test scores, prosecutors said.

A 65-count indictment returned last March charged that "test answer sheets were altered, fabricated and falsely certified" by Atlanta educators. The charges were in connection with a state investigation that found cheating on standardized tests at 44 Atlanta public schools.

Former Atlanta school superintendent Beverly Hall was among those indicted. Hall was named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators in 2009, the same year prosecutors contend widespread cheating took place.

Trials for Hall and the remaining defendants are scheduled for next year, prosecutors said.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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