DOE’s Investigative Arm to Get More Help As More Schools Get Scrutiny

John Mooney | August 15, 2013 | Education
Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance pushing to catch up on unresolved cases, some dating back to 2011

eraser test
The office was created in 2007 under former Gov. Jon Corzine, a new team of investigators who would root out irregularities and wrongdoing in New Jersey schools.

In the beginning, the Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance (OFAC) was just a few men and women with no subpoena powers. Still, it did get some enforcement chops under the leadership of Robert Cicchino, the former commanding officer of internal affairs for the state police.

Six years later, OFAC is becoming one of the state Department of Education’s higher-profile divisions, leading investigations into more than two dozen schools for possible irregularities on state testing.

And it’s about to get more help, at least for the time being.

This week, the state announced another eight schools would be investigated, each of them flagged for an inordinate number of answers changed from wrong to right on the 2012 NJASK.

The changes are traced by computer scanning of erasures on the answer sheets, a technology that is becoming the predominant first step in test security.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf stressed in a letter to districts this week that just flagging of schools for investigations is not an assumption of guilt. He also pointed out that the number of schools and incidents has dropped dramatically.

Perhaps just as important was Cerf’s observation that Cicchino’s office has been understaffed until now, with cases dating back to 2010 still unresolved, and it was time to get them more help.

“While we began with only three investigators assigned to this task, last year we increased this number to six investigators,” Cerf wrote. “Just last month, we doubled that again to twelve investigators, and are looking to bring in even more resources to finalize these reviews.

“With the experience of now conducting a number of these investigations, and with additional resources, we look forward to completing all of these outstanding investigations by the end of the school year.”

Cerf in an interview yesterday stressed the increase in staffing was more to address the backlog of cases than the new ones. Many of the new staff will be per-diem workers.

“The increase in staffing is not in anticipation of more cases,” he said. “There are actually a very small number. But we have 20 or so cases that still need to be resolved, and we need to get those cleared up.”

The erasure investigations are just a part of charge for the Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance

Another task getting some recent attention comes from a State Auditor’s report that referred to the office several cases of potential irregularities at private special-needs schools, especially concerning the requirements for criminal background checks of staff.

With a total staff of 70 all told, OFAC also conducts investigations into how state and federal aid is spent, the fiscal operations of early childhood schools in contract with districts, and the three state-operated districts.

“They do really strong work,” Cerf said yesterday of OFAC’s work. “We get tips all the time, with probably 99 percent of them with some political vendetta, but they still all need to be responsibly investigated.”

But the stakes in the testing investigations are clearly among highest, with school’s and district’s reputations at risk — if not the state testing regimen itself. That is especially important since the Christie administration is relying more and more on test results in judging not just schools but individual teachers.

One district that is keeping a close watch on the investigations is the state-operated Newark Public Schools, with eight schools previously cited for irregularities and one more added yesterday. When state superintendent Cami Anderson recently released performance reports on all of her schools, she separated out those that were facing erasure investigations.

The latest referral of schools for investigation is under slightly different rules than two years ago, when the state flagged its first schools using erasure analysis.

In that first year, schools were investigated when the number of wrong-to-right erasures was four standard deviations above the norm. For the past two years, the criteria is either four standard deviations above the norm for two consecutive years or a combination of four standard deviations above the mean and an “unusual” growth in overall scores in a single year.

The eight new schools being investigated for the 2011-2012 results are:

  • Grove Street Elementary School, Irvington
  • Calabro Elementary School, Hoboken
  • Deal School, Deal
  • Norman S. Weir Elementary School, Paterson
  • Gladys Nunnery School, Jersey City
  • Ernest J. Finizio-Aldene Elementary School, Roselle Park
  • Cleveland Elementary School, Newark
  • Hackettstown Middle School, Hackettstown.