MEMPHIS -- In an 11th-hour reversal, an educator accused of running a large test-cheating ring in three Southern states rejected a plea deal on Friday and elected to go to trial.
During a 20-minute hearing in United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, the educator, Clarence Mumford Sr., who was indicted last summer on 69 counts including mail, wire and Social Security fraud, said that the government's proposal of a 9- to 11-year sentence was "too severe for what I am charged with."
Federal prosecutors, who had been expecting Mr. Mumford, 59, to plead guilty on Friday, allege that he solicited teachers to take certification exams for other teachers and prospective teachers in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, falsifying government identifications and collecting tens of thousands of dollars in fees for his services over more than 15 years.
Under questioning during the hearing by his lawyer, Coleman W. Garrett, Mr. Mumford spoke deliberately, gripping a black newsboy-style cap. Mr. Mumford, who was a teacher, guidance counselor and assistant principal in the Memphis schools for 23 years, acknowledged that given his age and health -- he has diabetes and high blood pressure – he could be facing a lifetime sentence if found guilty.
Nonetheless, Mr. Mumford told Judge John T. Fowlkes, "I made this decision based solely on me and my faith."
Mr. Garrett noted that he had advised Mr. Mumford to accept the plea agreement. In an interview outside the courtroom, Mr. Garrett said that Mr. Mumford had already effectively admitted that he organized the test cheating, as he turned over the names of numerous teachers who sought his services.
Pulling a sheaf of color photocopies from his briefcase, Mr. Garrett showed pictures of falsified drivers' licenses that proxy test takers had used. "I cannot defend this," he said. But he said his strategy would be to "make sure the government proves each and every element of each and every allegation."
Mr. Mumford faces a challenging trial given that six other people, including four former teachers from the Memphis schools, have already pleaded guilty to accepting hundreds of dollars from him to sit as proxy test takers. An additional 12 people from Mississippi and Tennessee have been indicted, including those accused of paying Mr. Mumford to arrange for others to take tests. Among those indicted are Mr. Mumford's son, Clarence Mumford Jr., who made a brief appearance in court on Friday, and a former wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cedrick Wilson. Several people identified only by initials in court documents are also accused of paying Mr. Mumford to have someone else take tests for them.
The tests, which are taken by people who are seeking a teaching license or want to acquire new credentials in a specific subject, are known as Praxis exams, and they are administered by the Educational Testing Service. According to the organization, which hires local proctors to oversee the exams, 37 states require candidates to pass Praxis exams as a prerequisite for a teaching certificate.
According to court documents, Mr. Mumford hired test takers as early as 1995 and continued through at least 2010, if not later.
The ring was first detected in June 2009 when proctors for the Educational Testing Service realized that several people were taking tests using different names during a Praxis administration at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. The campus police apprehended John Bowen, a substitute teacher in Memphis, after proctors discovered that he had taken a test under a man's name in the morning and a different test under a woman's name in the afternoon.
Rosemary Freer, the director of testing at Arkansas State, said she turned over records of four people who she believed had cheated that day, and the Educational Testing Service conducted its own investigation for about a year, canceling several scores. The organization gives more than 340,000 Praxis exams, which cover basic skills, pedagogy and content knowledge in subject areas like biology, English and physical education, in 4,000 locations a year.
"There are always people who are trying to beat the system and gain unfair advantage over the vast majority of honest test takers," Thomas Ewing, a spokesman for the organization, wrote in an e-mail. "We are constantly enhancing and refining our test security measures to keep ahead of them."
The Praxis exams are not considered particularly difficult to pass. In Tennessee, for example, 97 percent of those who took the exams in 2010-11 passed them.
The testing service eventually turned over its findings to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which conducted an inquiry and then turned it over to the United States attorney in Memphis, Edward L. Stanton III.
In the interview outside the courtroom, Mr. Garrett said that his client was objecting to the government's proposed punishment, rather than the allegations themselves. "My client's position is really simple," Mr. Garrett said. "It is 'I have not killed anybody; I started this whole thing out trying to help someone.'" Mr. Garrett added, "It evolved, well, let's face it, into a moonlighting opportunity to make a little supplemental income."
Mr. Garrett said that although Mr. Mumford knew that cheating was morally wrong, he "did not know he was engaged in criminal activity."
Dorsey Hopson, the general counsel for the Memphis school system, said in a telephone interview that "for the people that we entrust to test kids to be involved in things like that is totally unacceptable." But in hiring teachers who had cheated on the tests, he said, the district had no way "to verify or to have any reason to dispute the results of these people's tests."
Keith Williams, the president of the Memphis Education Association, which represents about 5,300 teachers and other school staff members, said, "I do not believe it was a systemic problem."
Representatives of the Arkansas and Mississippi Departments of Education said they were cooperating with the investigation.
In the courtroom on Friday, Judge Fowlkes set a trial date of March 25 for Mr. Mumford. Outside the courtroom, Mr. Garrett said that when he asked Mr. Mumford if he was prepared to spend the rest of his life in prison, his client answered, "Yes, I am, because I am all prayed up."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.