JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio says having interactions with elementary kids ‘reminds you why you’re doing this job.’ Dec. 21, 2018 Matt Stone, Louisville Courier Journal
State monitors have found no evidence of deliberate, widespread cheating in JCPS.
Like students across Jefferson County Public Schools, 10 kids at King Elementary last spring toiled away during state testing — booklets, bubble sheets and sharpened No. 2 pencils in hand.
But the state is invalidating their K-PREP scores.
Not because the students screwed up. But because their teachers did.
The students, enrolled at King during the 2017-18 school year, took last year’s K-PREP state tests in small groups because they were still learning English. The kids were entitled to testing accommodations, such as having portions of their tests read to them.
But their proctors, failing to follow strict state testing rules, helped them too much, giving the students an unfair advantage on the tests, according to a monitoring report from the Kentucky Department of Education.
As a result, the state said it must invalidate the students’ scores.
State officials launched an investigation at King, interviewing both students and staff, last fall.
Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis last year cited the district’s testing issues among his reasons for wanting to take over JCPS.
No widespread cheating found at JCPS
A state attorney at the time likened JCPS’ testing “anomalies” — which included a large volume of wrong answers being erased and rebubbled as the right answers — to the nation’s most notorious cheating scandal.
That scandal, which rocked Atlanta Public Schools from 2011 to 2015, resulted in the conviction of 11 educators on charges of racketeering.
But state monitors have found no evidence of deliberate, widespread cheating in JCPS.
“There is no indication from these reports that any of these actions are comparable” to what happened in Atlanta, said district spokeswoman Renee Murphy.
“I don’t believe based on the evidence we’ve seen that there’s malicious intent or an intent to defraud,” Lewis said.
Instead, JCPS’ issues can be traced to poor training and test security practices, with school staff, such as those at King, often failing to follow state-mandated testing regulations, the Kentucky Department of Education found.
Murphy said the nullification of tests at King affects the school’s overall 2018 score but has “no impact” on individual students.
When asked whether the staff members implicated by the state’s investigation had faced disciplinary action, Murphy directed the Courier Journal to request their personnel files using the state’s public records law.
As of Monday morning, the records requests had not been fulfilled.
The monitored schools “are submitting an action plan to address any test security and administration issues identified in the state report,” Murphy said, adding that each school’s testing coordinator received three to four hours of training from the district regarding test administration.
The coordinators also received training from the state, she said.
Teacher yells at student, ‘Are you stupid?’
Monitors at King last year were particularly concerned by the testing of students with accommodations, which can include extra time to finish the test or having certain portions read aloud.
Students receiving accommodations during testing may have special education plans or may still be learning English. They often are tested in small groups.
Officials last year observed proctors at King helping students with test questions, often pointing to the students’ test booklets and changing their tone of voice while reading answers.
One teacher, a state report said, “yelled at a student stating the following: ‘Are you stupid or just can’t speak English.'”
The state referred that teacher, Joseph Dotson, to the Education Professional Standards Board. Dotson resigned from JCPS in June 2018, Murphy said.
An investigation into Dotson’s conduct, which could result in his teaching license being suspended or revoked, is ongoing, according to the state.
Lewis said he was disturbed to learn what state monitors had heard.
“My initial reaction to that type of comment is as a parent,” he said. “And I immediately think, ‘How would I feel if I found out at the end of the day a teacher had said that to my kid?’
“That kind of language has no place in any Kentucky public school. No kid deserves to be talked to that way.”
Several JCPS schools mishandled testing
But, Lewis said, the state’s K-PREP monitoring revealed that the “biggest challenges are training challenges.”
Proctors of the 10 students whose scores are being invalidated at King violated a state rule limiting the use of paraphrasing and simplified language when reading passages aloud, investigators found.
“It’s a combination of teachers not receiving appropriate training,” Lewis said. “Or not following through on what they’ve been directed to do.”
During 2018 testing at Coleridge-Taylor Elementary, for example, state officials observed students seated too close together. Some proctors didn’t read directions, while others didn’t consistently monitor students as they took their tests.
At Stonestreet Elementary, a teacher failed to intervene while two students appeared to be sharing answers, state monitors observed.
And at Rangeland Elementary, monitors watched as proctors gave students more help than was allowed, even bubbling in answers in students’ workbooks.
Across the schools observed, student test booklets were at times left unsecured and, at some, proctors were seen using their cellphones during testing.
Lewis informed JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio of the state’s findings last month, according to an April 8 letter provided to the Courier Journal by the state education department.
In the letter, Lewis mandated three hours of training on testing policies for staff at Audubon Traditional, Coleridge-Taylor, Brandeis, Stonestreet and Rangeland elementary schools.
Staff received the state-administered training over the past month, Murphy said.
Staff at Stopher and Greathouse Shyrock Traditional elementaries did not require further training, according to the state.
Observations and analysis of students’ test results at King triggered the state to open an investigation there, Lewis said. Other investigations could have been possible if it weren’t for a lack of available state staff, he said.
“We ended up only able to do an in-depth investigation in a handful of schools,” Lewis said. “And that was largely around having to make decisions about where we were going to use our resources.”
The state also conducted investigations due to testing anomalies in Morgan, Jessamine and Floyd counties, he said.
The state additionally investigated Newport Independent Schools based on allegations by staff, said Jessica Fletcher, spokeswoman for the state education department. That investigation resulted in nine third-grade students having their K-PREP math and reading scores invalidated because the students were allowed to finish incomplete answers days after testing was completed, she said.
Rules strict on how staff can act during testing
During its investigation at King last November, the state interviewed students, teachers and the school’s assessment coordinator. Students who had been tested in small groups and received accommodations said test proctors pointed to answers they needed to check, which would sometimes result in them changing their answers.
One of the teachers interviewed said she had encouraged students to check their work at the end of the testing session.
Another teacher, proctoring the test for students still learning English, said she had “summarized, paraphrased or used simplified language” in the students’ native language when they indicated they did not understand a question.
Proctors are not allowed to offer assistance or guidance to students, and there are strict rules for how and when proctors are allowed to paraphrase information, according to state regulations.
Kentucky students, beginning in the third grade, take K-PREP tests each spring. The state uses the scores when determining which schools are low-performing or have significant achievement gaps.
Lewis said the state has a responsibility to ensure all Kentucky students are taking the K-PREP tests under the same conditions.
“If you don’t have standardized conditions across a district or across a state, then you’re not able to compare apples to apples, kids to kids, schools to schools, districts to districts,” he said. “This really is central to having a standardized testing system that has integrity.”
Spring 2019 testing begins May 20 and lasts through May 28 for JCPS students. The state has no planned observations at JCPS, but could conduct a random visit to any school in the district, Murphy said.
Murphy said the district has not informed the students or their families about the state’s findings and its decision to invalidate the scores. The state did not identify the students or recommend in its report for JCPS to notify their families, she said.
Lewis, though, said parents should be informed.
“That’s something I would want to know about as a parent,” Lewis said. “I would hope that leaders in districts across Kentucky would make it a priority to communicate that to parents, as well.”