Valdosta City School System officials are reworking policies in the wake of investigations into questionable testing practices, including possible erasures on Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT).
The first investigation arose from a state erasure analysis that flagged J.L. Newbern Middle School as a “moderate concern category” school in terms of erasures on student tests in 2009.
The second investigation was conducted after Dr. Marilyn McCluskey, a science teacher at Newbern Middle School, spoke out about the system’s testing practices in 2009, which included the school’s principal pulling students out of classrooms to administer the CRCT to them herself, even though she was not trained to do so.
McCluskey was then reassigned to Valdosta High School and eventually dismissed with one day left in the school year.
Two investigations, several discrepancies
J.L. Newbern Middle School was flagged as a school of concern following an erasure analysis by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (OSA) and CTB/McGraw-Hill, the state’s testing vendor.
The erasure analysis revealed the middle school had a rate of 15.4 percent of its test takers changing from wrong to right answers, giving the school a “moderate concern” rating, and requiring that the system conduct an investigation and submit the results to the OSA.
The system assembled a district-level investigative team comprised of Dr. Bill Cason, superintendent, Gayle Golden, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, Marty Roesch, assistant superintendent of finance, Dr. Cheryl Copeland, director of testing, Page Arnette, director of curriculum for grades six through eight, Scarlet Correll, director of professional learning, Joann Mabry, former assistant superintendent, Gary Moser, school board attorney, and Miranda Cox, school board attorney.
The investigation determined that an administrator (Newbern principal Dr. Janice Richardson), who did not receive training to administer the CRCT, monitored and administered tests and pulled students determined to be “at risk test takers” without informing the system testing coordinator.
Following the investigation, the system sent its findings and corrective actions to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (OSA), which would not release information to The Times as it remains a pending investigation by a state regulatory agency.
A second investigation, conducted by a person outside of the Valdosta City School System, followed a phone call made by McCluskey to Dr. Cheryl Copeland, the school system’s coordinator of testing.
McCluskey was interviewed on March 4 by investigator Scott Chesternuttwood and school system administrators Copeland and Golden.
Four other teachers were interviewed and a former J.L. Newbern Middle School paraprofessional was interviewed, according to investigative documents provided by the school system.
Information from the second investigation stated that the principal did not include the names of all regular education students pulled and tested separately by examiners other than the homeroom teacher in the “at risk test takers” list.
From the interviews, it was determined that Dr. Dan Altman, J.L. Newbern Middle School testing coordinator, told examiners that only special education students would be pulled from the regular classroom for testing.
However, Dr. Richardson held another meeting concerning the pulling of regular education “at risk test takers.”
The interviewees stated that the principal presented gifts to teachers who were interviewed by the investigative team. According to the investigative documents, the principal’s reason for giving the gifts was as an apology for being interviewed by investigators.
Training, testing, teaching
On March 12, 2009, Copeland administered a CRCT training session for school test coordinators. On April 9, 2009, Altman conducted training for certified teachers and supporting staff.
The district investigation revealed that all examiners and proctors at Newbern Middle School received training except for Principal Richardson.
Richardson told investigators that she received training and signed the training log, but her signature does not appear on the log. This is a violation of the Georgia CRCT test coordinator’s directives. The tests must be administered by certified teachers.
Richardson administered the CRCT to students labeled “at risk test takers.”
J.L. Newbern administration identified these “at risk test takers” as students causing chronic classroom disruptions, which could disturb the testing environment.
Testing exceptions are allowed for students in specialized programs such as Individualized Education Plan (IEP), Individual Accommodation Plan (IAP) or English Language Learner (ELL). But regular students who do not qualify under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) may not be granted testing accommodations.
The J.L. Newbern students pulled as “at risk” should have been tested with the rest of the school population, according to state regulations. Selecting and testing students separately because they pose a potential disruption violates these regulations.
As for educators, CRCT security protocol states that only a school’s test coordinator should have access to CRCT testing materials.
At J.L. Newbern, prior to each testing period, these materials were kept in a conference room, adjacent to Richardson’s office. In addition to the test coordinator, several school officials had keys to the conference room, including the principal, three assistant principals, two instructional lead teachers, a school resource officer and several secretaries.
Despite this security violation, investigators could not determine whether any employee altered student responses or tampered with any test documents.
The investigative report states: “The team unanimously agreed that they do not believe any teachers engaged in any unscrupulous testing practices.”
Investigating the investigation?
After being interviewed by the Professional Standards Commission investigator, science teacher Dr. Marilyn McCluskey conducted her own investigation.
She learned investigator Scott Chesternuttwood was not employed by the PSC. Instead, he’d been hired by the school system on a referral from Dr. Gary Walker, the Georgia PSC director and a former Valdosta City School System superintendent.
Valdosta City School System documents identify Chesternuttwood as a PSC investigator; however, he is not listed on the PSC Web site as an investigator.
Walker said the investigator who worked with the system is not a PSC investigator.
During her interview with Chesternuttwood, McCluskey believed she was speaking with a PSC representative with no affiliation to the in-house Valdosta city school investigation.
As for what McCluskey told investigators, she shared what she witnessed during the 2009 CRCT testing.
In 2009, McCluskey said, 40 eighth-graders were pulled out of their normal classrooms to be tested separately.
McCluskey said Richardson stated these students were pulled because they were flagged as potential behavior problems during the test. The test documents for those 40 students were given back to their teachers after they were tested by Richardson, McCluskey said.
The CRCT tests of those 40 students were placed with the tests of those students who remained in the classroom and were tested by their teachers.
“Teachers don’t have nothing to do with this. We never had access to that test long enough to change an answer,” McCluskey said. “We didn’t do anything as far as that is concerned.”
Following the investigation and another incident between McCluskey and Richardson, the science teacher was removed from Newbern.
Tensions between McCluskey and Richardson began after the teacher left school early one day. She claims she had permission, but was referred to Dr. Cason by Richardson the following day.
McCluskey said Cason told her not to return to work pending an investigation into her leaving without permission.
McCluskey said she was placed on administrative leave, with pay, for four days. Following the four days, McCluskey was notified that she would not return to Newbern but would be transferred to Valdosta High School.
She began working at Valdosta High School as an In-School-Suspension teacher on March 9.
On May 20, McCluskey was dismissed from Valdosta High School, the day before the school year ended. The superintendent told her that the system would pay out the rest of her contract but she was not to return to school.
In July of this year, McCluskey and her family will be moving to Aberdeen, Md., where her husband has been stationed with the military.
“I would have been gone this year, but the only reason I am here this year is because I won teacher of the year (in 2009),” McCluskey said. “I felt like if my co-workers cared enough to vote me teacher of the year then the least I could do is stay another year.”
Information regarding McCluskey, Richardson and others involved in this issue is not available to the public. Cason said he cannot comment on information requests directly related to personnel.
The investigations’ results
The district-level investigative team interviewed Richardson, school testing coordinator Dr. Dan Altman and the school’s instructional lead teachers and homeroom teachers whose classes were flagged for excessive erasures on individual student answer documents in reading, English/language arts and mathematics.
The response as to why the erasure data varied significantly from the rest of the state’s testing population was consistent throughout the interviews, the investigators determined.
Each respondent stated that they were trained to monitor the testing room by circulating and ensuring students were working on task. They stressed to students the importance of checking over their work and ensuring that they chose the best answer for each question. All those interviewed also stated that they did not notice more erasures than normal by the students in the classroom.
It was determined by the system, as a corrective measure, that the school test coordinator will undergo rigorous training on small group testing and use of test administration accommodations. All school test coordinators will also be required to submit lists of all students being pulled from the regular classroom for small group testing and only those that have a small group accommodation included in their IEP, IAP, or ELL plan will be permitted to be pulled out for small group testing.
From now on, tests will be placed in a more secure site with only the principal and school test coordinator having access.