Records reveal “inappropriate teacher assistance” in 2 local schools

A three-month long Community Watchdog investigation revealed last year students in two Southwest Virginia classrooms had to retake their Standards of Learning assessments; not because they cheated, but because of allegations their teachers cheated.

TRI-CITIES, TN/VA (WJHL) – In the quiet Southwest Virginia town of Marion there’s something very few people know about. Several 5th grade reading and U.S. history students at Oak Point Elementary School took two Standards of Learning tests in 2014; not because they cheated, but because of questionable actions by their teacher.

Stacy Cline has a first grader who goes to the school. She says her niece was one of the 16 students impacted.

“It was very upsetting,” Cline said. “None of us were happy. You can’t cheat through life. That’s what they’re teaching them.”

The yearly SOL exams are critical barometers for student achievement in Virginia. According to the Virginia Department of Education, the tests create minimum expectations of what students in Virginia should know. State and local school districts use the test results to direct resources to the kids who really need help

However, in rare instances there is inappropriate assistance reported. If those allegations are not caught on the front end there is the potential for the results to be skewed.

The only way to really find out any specifics about the cheating allegations is to request pages upon pages of public documents, so that’s what we did. Through a public records request Virginia Department of Education records revealed Smyth County Schools opened an investigation into allegations of inappropriate teacher assistance on May 22nd.

"The Lee County school system takes allegations of testing irregularities in its schools very seriously…” said Superintendent Mark Carter said in a written statement
“The Lee County school system takes allegations of testing irregularities in its schools very seriously…” said Superintendent Mark Carter said in a written statement

Superintendent Dr. Michael Robinson said he could not go into details about the case due to privacy concerns, but he assured us the district takes all testing irregularities seriously.

“(The test) is to determine how the students are doing,” Dr. Robinson said. “It informs the child and the child’s parents about how they’re doing. It informs the school whether we’re accomplishing the standards and it’s our accountability system in Virginia. We want to the integrity of the SOL testing system to be what it ought to be.”

The final report, which the district formally handed over to the state in January, concluded a finding that supported “the examiner may have provided improper assistance.” However, according to documents, the investigation did not reveal anything that suggested the teacher did it “knowingly and purposefully.”

“Smyth County Schools always takes our testing sessions very seriously,” Dr. Robinson said. “We have always prided ourselves on testing 100% of our students. There’s a 5% percent gap that you cannot test but we’ve said, ‘If we teach them, we test them,’ so we get the most accurate data for our school system and we take our testing very seriously.”

Dr. Robinson says the district remains committed to trying to put two adults in testing sessions whenever possible.

“We are constantly looking for ways to make that testing experience as good as it can be for the kids,” he said.

Early on in this case, according to records, the district also took steps to make sure the teacher in question never tested kids alone again, but that is no longer necessary. We don’t know if the school board fired the teacher in question or if that person resigned, but according to state documents from just last month, that teacher is no longer employed by the school system.

State records reveal a similar situation played out in Lee County last year too. However, in this case, at least at the moment, the high school teacher still has a job. Another big difference in Lee County is that the district’s superintendent would not sit down and talk with us. It took a trip to Jonesville to get any answers on-camera.

“Do you see how some in the public might feel concerned about this when they’re hearing this from us and you all won’t sit down and talk with us?” we asked Superintendent Mark Carter.

“Well at this point I really can’t talk about that any further,” he said.

Carter is referring to an investigation the central office opened on May 28th, according to records. Documents reveal nine Thomas Walker High School students reported their teacher helped them during their test.

“She made me change commas, periods, and words,” one student told the district’s investigator.

Another told investigators the teacher “corrected parts of my essay.”

A third reported, “She told me that I had stuff wrong with my essay…She helped the student next to me on everything. She told him what to write for every sentence.”

According to documents, the teacher denied the claims, saying the students could be getting back at her for taking a student’s phone and an issue about tweeting in class. Meanwhile, the other adult in the room who was in charge of monitoring students during that test told the district’s investigator he could not remember anything wrong taking place.

Still, the state required 18 students to retake their 11th grade writing SOL test, according to documents. To this day, the district maintains these are just allegations, but documents show early on the person in charge of the investigation determined witness statements would “permit a fact-finder to conclude that the test examiner willfully violated test security protocols.” As a result, the district changed its testing policy.

“The Lee County school system takes allegations of testing irregularities in its schools very seriously, as evidenced by its prompt investigation into the allegations last May that a teacher provided improper assistance during a test,” Carter said in a written statement. “Due to the allegations, the state Department of Education required that the students in the questioned testing session be retested, which they were, earlier this school year. There has been no allegation that any administrator or supervisor provided any improper assistance, nor is there any evidence of such. It is important to note that at this point, the allegations of impropriety are just that…In light of the allegations, and the resulting investigation, the school system no longer permits teachers of record for a course to be present during SOL testing for that course. The teacher remains employed by the Lee County school system. Information about the discipline of employees is considered a personnel matter, and is not generally publicly disclosed.”

After providing us with that statement Carter eventually agreed to an on-camera interview with us, but then cancelled. Carter told us his bosses, the Smyth County School Board, requested he not discuss this issue publicly. He says the board made that request when they were talking about personnel in a closed board session.

“At the request of the board they’ve asked me not to discuss this issue publicly,” Carter said previously told us by phone. “They didn’t give me a reason. They asked that I not discuss that further.”

When we talked with him in person in Jonesville he told us he may be able to talk at some point.

“Is there anything you can say to the people of Lee County to assure them of any concerns they may have because of this?” we asked.

“I really cannot say anything further,” Carter said.

“At some point do you feel like you may be able to?” we asked.

“Possibly in the future,” he replied.

So where do things stand? Documents show at one point the Lee County School Board had no intention of trying to revoke the teacher’s license. However, according to documents, the school system did notify the state Office of Licensure of the allegations last month. Carter says the district is still in communication with the Virginia Department of Education.

Virginia Department of Education Communications Director Charles Pyle could not talk specifics about either of these cases, but he said the state rarely revokes teachers’ licenses due to cheating allegations. He says that only happens in the most egregious cases. He says it has only happened eight times in the last 12 years or so.

“Sometimes these actions appear to be inadvertent,” Pyle said. “Teachers by their very nature they want to help students and sometimes teachers will cross the line, not intentionally, but just out of a desire to help a student. Other times, unfortunately, we have instances where someone intentionally violates the security procedures around the tests.”

So in those rare cases, why would a teacher cheat? That is just one more thing that adds to this mystery. According to Pyle, 40% percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on student academic progress, but SOL scores are just one part of that equation

Regardless of the reason, Stacy Cline is just relieved Smyth County addressed the issue in her daughter’s district.

“If (the teacher) wasn’t caught then it would have continued, so it’s a positive that (the teacher) was caught,” Cline said. “It’s a positive that they’re looking into it more and they had to retest and hopefully all the students did well with it, but it’s something that no one wants to see go on.”

In both of these cases, administrators quickly opened investigations and quickly notified the parents of the students who were involved.

Our investigation did not find any teachers in Northeast Tennessee accused of helping kids cheat, but we did find that in other parts of Tennessee.

The Tennessee Department of Education reports 332 students from Spring 2010 to Spring 2014 “had their test scores nullified on the TCAP Achievement or TCAP End of Course assessments due to test security breaches.” Those breaches, according to the state involved 11 teachers.

District Number of Students Number of Teachers Year
Lauderdale County

2

1

2014
Knox County

1

1

2013
Memphis City 1 1 2013
Sevier County 1 1 2013
Wilson County 95 1 2013
Hamblen County 29 1 2012
Madison County 73 1 2012
McNairy County 1 1 2012
Memphis City 23 1 2011
Monroe County 69 1 2011
Monroe County 37 1 2010

*Source:  Tennessee Department of Education

“These numbers reflect confirmed cases of test security breaches since 2010, defined as any action of an adult that has compromised the integrity of the test per TCA 49-1-607,” said Ashley Ball, deputy director of communications with the Tennessee Department of Education.  “Examples of security breaches at the hands of teachers or administrators could vary. Student tests are only nullified if a teacher or administrator action affects the integrity of the student’s score. For example, writing the answers to the test on the board, pointing at an item and telling the student to read carefully and consider their answer….”

The Virginia Department of Education reports a handful of other cases dating back to 2011 involving allegations of teacher or administer assistance.

School District

Number of Students

Year
Abingdon Elementary School Washington County 9 2011
Patrick Henry High Washington County 5 2012
John S. Battle High Washington County 1 2012
St. Paul Elementary Wise County 1 2013
Thomas Walker High Lee County 18 2014
Oak Point Elementary Smyth County 16 2014

*Source:  Virginia Department of Education

Copyright 2015 WJHL. All rights reserved. 

 

 

 

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