Department of Education Cheating Investigation Implicates Two More Schools

John Mooney | November 14, 2012 | Education
Report claims that improvements in test scores at Robert Treat Academy, a high-profile charter, defy all odds

The state Department of Education’s year-long investigation into testing irregularities in a handful of public schools in 2010 and 2011 has leveled serious accusations against two more institutions, including a Newark charter founded by one of the state’s preeminent power brokers.

Late yesterday the department released critical investigative reports of the Robert Treat Academy Charter School in Newark and the John Marshall Elementary School in Elizabeth.

Robert Treat was founded by Steve Adubato Sr., a longtime Democratic leader in the city’s North Ward.

The department has previously released a damning report of testing in Woodbridge schools, and still more are expected.

But this release steps up the exposure. Adubato’s school has been one of the darlings of New Jersey’s charter school movement, enjoying two visits and plenty of praise from Gov. Chris Christie, among others.

Investigators cited testing and security breaches by administrators and teachers at both schools during the 2010 and 2011 cycles of the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK). The department claims that staff members coached students to correct wrong answers and allowed for security lapses with answer sheets.

The two schools reacted differently. A spokesman for the Elizabeth schools announced that two teachers and a guidance counselor had been suspended on Friday, with more serious tenure charges expected this week.

“I am disturbed by the findings and appreciate the State of New Jersey’s work in this matter,” said Elizabeth superintendent Pablo Munoz in a statement. “We will work to ensure the proper administration of state assessments.”

Meanwhile, Robert Treat’s principal at the time of the alleged incidents argued that the state’s claims weren’t valid, and there was no wrongdoing. Michael Pallante, the longstanding principal who retired last year, said last night that test proctors had employed a strategy for helping students that investigators misinterpreted as coaching.

Pallante said in an interview that the report’s accusations are exaggerated. “They’re overstating things,” he claimed

The school released its own statement defending its practices: “The fact that Robert Treat students do well on the NJ ASK and other tests is a testament to the hard work of our students, our teaching staff and our parents.”

Nonetheless, it is a black eye for the charter, as well as for Elizabeth, a high-profile district in its own right.

State officials last night added nothing to the late afternoon release, saying they would let the reports speak for themselves. Christie’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Robert Treat has been among the high fliers in the state’s charter school movement, one of the original 13 approved under former Gov. Christie Whitman and making headlines ever since.

It has consistently posted well-above-average scores both in Newark’s mostly Hispanic North Ward and in the state itself — some of the highest, in fact. In 2008, it won a national Blue Ribbon School award from the U.S. Department of Education.

Meanwhile, Adubato hasn’t been shy about promoting his school’s success and high test scores with billboards across the city. Operating out of his North Ward Center and its expansive social services programs, Adubato has for four decades been a colorful and powerful cheerleader for his ward and city, as well as for his political allies.

Ironically, it was those high scores that prompted state investigators to launch their probe, first announced 17 months ago, into more than 30 schools.

In each case, scanning analysis revealed that an inordinate number of student had erased wrong answers, changing them to correct ones. The state first asked the schools to look into the issue and then sent in their own investigators. Erasure analyses are now common in testing security.

In Robert Treat’s case, the inquiry focused on the 2011 sixth grade. Investigators interviewed more than a dozen staff members, as well as two students. (The report said that only two families agreed to allow their children to be interviewed.)

According to the report, investigators found that Pallante and other administrators, including Adubato’s daughter, Theresa, who was vice principal at the time, had allowed for lapses in the so-called chain of custody of answer booklets, opening up the possibility of tampering.

Among the most troublesome charges were that the sixth-grade students were taught to use a process of elimination strategy in answering questions, and to actually fill in two answers that were closest to correct. The report did not make conclusions about what happened next, but one teacher quoted in the report raised the possibility that administrators could have tampered with final results.

She said there was a “standing joke among the teaching staff that [administrators] were going over the test booklets to make sure the students did well,” the report said.

Among the evidence gathered by the DOE were numbers of correct answers that did not make statistical sense, investigators said. Erasure rates were six or seven times the averages of other schools. Nine of 24 students got perfect scores on the math test. And the rate of improvement for students in the sixth grade over previous scores defied all odds.

“The odds of 64.0 percent of sixth-grade students having a higher MATH score in 2011 compared to their scores in 2009 [fourth grade] and 2010 [fifth grade is less than one out of one million,” the report said.

Pallante last night said there was nothing insidious about the strategy of having students eliminate the unlikeliest answers, and he denied that teachers went in and changed answers themselves.

“It was a strategy to help students who were unsure about their answers,” he said. “It’s just the department was searching, and they couldn’t find anything.

“If they are going to interpret that as a security breach, well, that’s their interpretation,” Pallante said. “They are making inferences that are unfair.”

Editor’s note: This story was amended since it was first posted to clarify the state’s findings regarding potential tampering of student answers by Robert Treat Academy staff.