DOE Releases Two More Reports on School Cheating Scandal

John Mooney | April 8, 2013 | Education
Pair of East Orange elementary schools implicated in minor infractions, restricted to a few teachers

After much fanfare nearly two years ago, New Jersey’s investigations into possible cheating on standardized student tests have moved ahead at a glacial pace, with the state releasing two more reports last week but still investigating more than 25 other cases.

The state Department of Education on Friday provided reports for two East Orange elementary schools where it said it found several teachers either breached proper security protocols or may have coached students to change answers.

In both cases, no widespread tampering was found and no administrators were implicated.

Still, the investigations only make seven reports completed out of more than 30 schools called out almost two years ago for suspicious anomalies in test results from 2010 and 2011. The anomalies are identified with high-tech screening of erasure marks for answers changed from wrong to right.

Eight of the schools still under investigation are in Newark, including one district school that was named a top performer by the Christie administration last year but is slated for closure by state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.

State officials said they are moving expeditiously in all of the cases, each of them requiring not just statistical analysis but interviews and further investigation of potential suspects and witnesses.

“We take the issue of cheating very seriously, and these investigative processes take time to gather the necessary information to compile as accurate of a report as possible,” said department spokeswoman Barbara Morgan in an email.

“We want nothing less than that, and if the results take some time, that is a side-effect we can live with.”

The New Jersey investigations are drawing attention again, since the Atlanta public schools under the leadership of former Newark superintendent Beverly Hall was swept up in a wide-ranging cheating investigation that ultimately led to the indictment of more than 30 teachers and other employees, including Hall herself.

Before moving to Atlanta, Hall was the first Newark superintendent named by the state after its takeover of the district in 1995. She lasted five years, often at loggerheads with the local community and union leaders and eventually leaving amid questions of financial mismanagement.

But unlike the Atlanta case, where more than 100 state investigators descended on the district’s schools, New Jersey’s investigations come out of an office of only about a half-dozen agents, and each probe has been hard fought. The department has no criminal subpoena power, and now some of these cases are two years old.

Even the two latest reports out of East Orange are based more on circumstantial evidence, with the biggest questions centering on how and why proctors and other staff held onto testing documents well past the time they were to secure them and turn them over to administrators.

In isolated cases, the investigators said they found witnesses who described how one individual teacher or another coaxed correct answers out of students as he or she walked around the room.

The two schools investigated were the Dionne Warwick Institute and the Fourth Avenue School, since closed and replaced by the Benjamin Banneker Academy.

“Witnesses indicated [a Warwick teacher] instructed students to change answers,” the report read. “[She] would say, ‘Look at the question again.’ Or other occasions she would point to the appropriate answer.”

The cases do not rise to the level of Atlanta, or even to some of the more damning in New Jersey so far. In Woodbridge, three teachers and two administrators were implicated last year, leading to suspensions and dismissals.

But there may be more to come, especially with Newark in the crosshairs. Seven of its schools and one charter remain under investigation, including some of its highest performing.

One of them, the Roseville Avenue Elementary School, was named as a Reward School by the state last year for its high test scores. It is now on the block to be closed, although officials said that was not directly due to the cheating probe.

Editor’s note: The initial version of this story incorrectly reported that in a previous state investigation at an unidentified charter school, the final report said teachers and students would not speak to investigators. That is incorrect. The report said two students and 16 staff members were interviewed.