- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The head of Mississippi’s educator misconduct office testified Monday that a Clarksdale elementary school principal participated in and covered up cheating on standardized tests at her school.

However, Michael Martin, interim director of the Mississippi Department of Education’s office of educator misconduct , said that despite signing charges against Heidelberg Elementary School Principal Lowanda Tyler-Jones, he had little or no personal knowledge of the allegations against her.

“My client didn’t do it,” said Tyler-Jones’ lawyer Lisa Ross. “The witnesses are lying. They changed their testimony. Every day, it’s a different story.”

Lawyers for the state, though, said Martin didn’t need to have personal knowledge to testify in the administrative proceeding.

Martin’s testimony came after hours of deliberation by a hearing panel of the state licensure commission over pre-hearing motions. The commission turned down efforts by Ross to force state Superintendent Carey Wright to testify directly, and to access recordings of Heidelberg students made during the investigation. The panel also rejected Ross’ effort to disqualify members of the hearing panel who sat in two earlier cases involving Heidelberg teachers.

Of those teachers, Frances Smith-Kemp gave up her teaching license for two years, while the licensure commission suspended the license of Tetra Winters for five years.

Tyler-Jones, previously an elementary school teacher, was named Heidelberg’s principal in January 2012. Test scores from her first semester at the school rose so much over the previous year that the school’s letter grade in the state rating system rose from a D to a B. After 2013, the year that the allegations focus on, the letter grade rose again from a B to an A.

Those test score increases were flagged by the state as statistically unlikely, and the Mississippi Department of Education asked Clarksdale Superintendent Dennis Dupree to investigate. His cursory inquiry reported nothing wrong though. Dupree has not been charged.

It wasn’t until The Clarion-Ledger reported that test results were falsified at the school in May 2014 that the state began its own investigation, led by consulting firm Caveon. That inquiry found that teachers were coaching students on right answers.

Monday, the state alleged that Tyler-Jones encouraged such cheating, or at least knew of it and failed to report it.

Ross argued that the state had ignored allegations of testing irregularities in other districts to go after Heidelberg and Tyler-Jones in particular.

“We offer this evidence that my client is being singled out and that my client is subject to selective prosecution,” Ross said.

At least two other Heidelberg teachers whose conduct has been questioned have not been charged. However, Martin said charges against those people haven’t been ruled out.

“The investigation may or may not be finished,” Martin said.

The hearing is scheduled to continue Tuesday.


Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy. His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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