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School Testing Investigation Moves to Next Phase

State investigators to begin interviewing teachers at nine schools

The first team of state investigators is expected tomorrow at Woodbridge's Avenel Street School, one of nearly a dozen schools singled out last summer for irregularities and possible cheating on state tests.

What raised the red flag? Avenel is one of nine schools that had among the highest erasure rates on the tests in 2010.

In each case, an extraordinary number of answers were changed from wrong to right -- as much as four times higher than the norm -- according to Robert Cicchino, a former State Police commander who now directs of the department's Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance.

The interviews are the next step in an investigation that stretches back seven months, when 34 schools were named in a preliminary analysis conducted by the state’s testing vendor.

The bulk of them were subject to at least internal district inquiries, state officials said. The first round of findings on those inquiries is to be released in the next few weeks, officials said

But in the meantime, state investigators fixed on the nine with the highest rates and pored over 103 boxes loaded with more than 200,000 test booklets and other documents.

Four of the schools are in Newark, including one of its highest performing, the Abington Avenue School. Three charter schools were also named and are being investigated as well.

"We are now comfortable with knowing what teacher was in what room on what day," said Cicchino.

“With the investigative report, we'll interview the teachers and administrators involved," he said.

In an interview yesterday, Cicchino said the investigation is one of the most complex he can remember in his law enforcement career, mixing statistics-heavy forensic work to determine the extent of erasures with traditional witness interviews.

Leading the team is special investigator Teresita Munkacsy, who has specific expertise in statistical analysis.

Adding to the challenge are the 18 or more months that have passed since the tests. Investigators haven't decided yet whether they will interview students, Cicchino said.

"Remember this was 2010, a year and a half ago," he said. "How much will they remember?"

Making matters worse, Cicchino said there were delays in collecting test booklets, timesheets, and other documents from Measurement Inc., the state's chief testing contractor, which did the initial erasure analysis by machine.

Still, he said the interviews are where the cases are decided, with the erasures alone unlikely to be enough evidence. In each case, he expected teachers and administrators to be accompanied by their union officials, possibly complicating matters further.

"That may restrict how far we get," he said. "A lot of this will be contingent on cooperation."

Union leaders in Newark yesterday said they had been contacted about the investigation, and some of their members had already been interviewed by at least district officials.

“All I know is they were told by investigators that they answered the questions sufficiently,” said Joseph DelGrosso, president of the Newark Teachers Union.

Cicchino wouldn't even venture as to how long the entire process could go, saying the first visits will be to smaller schools and districts to help determine how much time will be needed. In some cases, the problem may be restricted to a single class; in others, it may involve nearly every grade.

"It will depend on how these interviews go," he said. "We have to walk before we can run, so we are starting with the smallest first."

For a school like Avenel, with just one grade under review, "it's probably five to seven people to talk to," Cicchino said. "Where it's every class in every grade, it's a whole different beast."

What comes of all of this is yet to be determined. Cicchino's office typically investigates a dozen test breaches a year, sometimes leading to disciplinary action against teachers or even loss of licenses.

He was not making any predictions at this point, but also said he wanted to be ready for all outcomes, including possible referrals to the state Attorney General's office.

"If we are going to have any case that may include criminal charges, we want to be able to address that," he said.

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