For one North Elementary parent, a study guide sent home by their child's teacher last spring threw up a red flag.
"I was a little shocked that there would be a study guide for a standardized test," the parent wrote in an email sent to principal Shauna Criddle in April 2011. In the parent's eyes, the purpose of the test was to measure how students do individually and how the school does as a whole.
Results of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation in 2011 and numerous follow-up reporting by that newspaper and others have turned national attention to cheating on standardized tests. In March, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on the state's failure to check for cheating and named Jackson among districts that had claims confirmed by school investigators.
Details on the single "testing irregularity" reported in the district in 2011 were recently provided by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The claim led to an investigation and later to science scores for one fifth-grade class at North Elementary being invalidated by the department.
According to DESE, assistant superintendent and district testing coordinator Dr. Rita Fisher reported in May that a study guide produced by a teacher at an elementary school included questions on the review sheet that mirrored a session of one of the grade-level Missouri Assessment Program tests.
The teacher resigned but taught the class for the remainder of the year when her contract expired, district officials say. Another teacher in possession of the study guide who was found not to have shared it with students is also no longer employed by the district. Fisher confirmed Thursday that the teacher had put in a resignation with an intent to leave the district at the end of spring term earlier in the year.
"In this case, some of the people are not here, but we don't know that's why they aren't here. They didn't indicate that in their resignations," superintendent Dr. Ron Anderson said.
Teachers are not supposed to know or share the exact questions on any standardized tests, but they do receive a list of related released items that apply to MAP tests throughout the year, Fisher said.
Documents that fall under the Missouri Sunshine Law's provisions relating to the cheating claim were provided by the school district at the request of the Southeast Missourian.
The teacher who resigned following the investigation admitted to using the study guide and sending it home with students but said she was unaware of its origin, according to the documents. The other teacher said she had typed the study guide from some notes she found in her file, did not use it with her students and was also unaware of its origin. Names of former and current personnel are exempt from disclosure.
The parent's email to Criddle said items on the study guide stated facts the students needed to learn or memorize and that it felt like cheating.
Anderson and Fisher say district staff follow all guidelines on safekeeping of MAP tests as set by DESE and could not determine during the investigation how teachers could have obtained the material necessary to create the study guide. Security measures for testing booklets include storing upcoming and completed copies in locked cabinets, only allowing access to the booklets to certain staff members and conducting training for counselors in each building, who also act as building test coordinators.
"We take it very seriously," Anderson said. "That's the way we do business."
Students had already finished MAP tests at the end of April by the time the district became aware of the incident, Fisher said.
Parents of the North Elementary students with scores later thrown out by DESE were not notified by the district that the scores were invalidated. The district is not obligated to provide that notification, according to Fisher. The parents did receive their student's individual score.
Communications from DESE stated the district did "exactly what is expected" when a testing irregularity comes to light by self-reporting the violation.
According to DESE, "self-reporting by districts ensures the system is held to high standards of accountability and integrity, and close monitoring makes certain that the testing is handled appropriately."
Documents show Criddle forwarded the parent's email to Fisher within hours of receiving it, and Fisher in turn notified DESE.
Anderson said he has never had to deal with a situation where teachers mishandled testing materials and that discipline for staff, including termination, would depend on the way one interprets various district policies.
"We do an investigation and have a discussion so we can try to get as much information as possible for DESE, and it basically goes from there," he said.
According to the district's policy on test security, test booklets will remain untouched until they are distributed for administration; only the test coordinator and other designated individuals will have access to test materials; and no teacher shall have access to tests or be told what is in them before the test is distributed except special education teachers in accordance with a student's individualized education program.
Unfair practices under the policy include copying test booklets, removing booklets from a secure storage area except during administration and directly teaching any test item on a standardized test. Also according to the policy, if allegations of a staff member participating in unfair practices are proved, appropriate disciplinary action will be taken.
Anderson and Fisher both said neither teacher was asked to resign. The school board was also told of the incident, Anderson said, but nothing related to it was discussed by the board in open session.
"We always make them aware of anything of a serious nature," he said.
According to district policy, resignations become effective at the end of the school year in which they are submitted unless the district is notified otherwise. In most cases, teachers under contract can only be released under the board's authority.
Fisher said no other testing irregularities have been found or reported in Jackson schools in the district's history of administering MAP tests.
Both administrators say the district's security policies and procedures for testing work well and that they consider the incident to be isolated.
DESE said the district has ensured that it will enhance annual training with all school test coordinators, annually review the district's test security and make clear that teachers are not to review the assessments.
Public school students are tested in science through the Missouri Assessment Program using annual spring tests or end-of-course exams in fifth, eighth and 11th grades. The tests are designed to see if students are meeting knowledge and performance standards set by the state.
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