Hours after The Lens published a story on the Louisiana Department of Education’s failure to provide public records on probes of standardized test cheating, the department’s attorney forwarded the documents — two months after they were first requested.*

The Lens has received district reports of cheating investigations in 2010, 2011, and 2012. We’ll be publishing our findings after a review of the 159 pages of documentation.

The department’s slow response ran counter to the state’s public records law, which mandates that officials hand over public records immediately unless they’re in active use, in which case the agency has three business days to do so. The law also says that someone who hasn’t gotten records within five days can pursue legal action.

The Lens is seeking the information to determine how widespread standardized test cheating is at Louisiana schools and to learn how they respond to it. Standardized test scores are a key factor in determining the all-important School Performance Score; schools that score low can have their charters revoked.

In the last year alone, officials at two New Orleans charter schools have denied or ignored requests from The Lens for documentation of cheating investigations. Lafayette Academy, whose test scores have more than doubled in five years, acknowledged that it had investigated a cheating allegation last year. But school officials rebuffed The Lens’ efforts to learn more, saying any documents weren’t subject to public records law.

The president of the board that runs Lafayette Academy, Jim Huger, told The Lens that the school found no evidence of cheating on standardized tests.

At the highly ranked Robert Moton Charter School, the Orleans Parish School Board concluded that staffers inappropriately showed fourth-graders the writing portion of the test before the exam had started. OPSB couldn’t substantiate other cheating allegations.

Moton hired a lawyer to look into the matter and concluded that no cheating had occurred. Nevertheless, OPSB required Moton to develop measures to prevent future  cheating. When the matter came up in a December board meeting, Moton principal Paulette Bruno faulted the OPSB investigation, saying it didn’t follow board procedure.

In January, Bruno told The Lens that she wasn’t sure if the school’s investigation was subject to public records law. She referred the request to local attorney Lee Reid, with the law firm of Adams and Reese. Reid did not respond to The Lens’ request, sent Jan. 16.

Charter schools — which enjoy administrative autonomy equivalent to parish-wide school districts — are required to notify the state of cheating allegations only when they are substantiated by internal investigations. Lafayette would have been obliged to report its findings only if cheating was detected.

Other media outlets have also complained that state education officials fail to respond to their public-information requests in timely fashion. For example, the News-Star in Monroe unsuccessfully sought emails regarding the state’s voucher program. State education Superintendent John White cited the state’s deliberative-process exemption, which has been used by the governor’s office and a few governmental agencies to deny access to certain documents.

What we asked for, what we got

On Dec. 11, The Lens sent an email to the Department of Education requesting “any and all documentation related to cheating investigations from school districts around the state since August 2010.”

A week later, a spokeswoman for the department responded with test security reports for 2010 and 2011. Those documents noted the number of testing irregularities found during random school visits.

But they didn’t say whether investigations were conducted at the nearly 30 schools where tests were voided — information we specifically asked for. We also didn’t receive documentation from districts that have reported instances of cheating, as requested.

When The Lens complained, state officials said they would respond once they had assembled the documents. On Jan. 4, The Lens received word from another spokesman that state employees were examining documents to ensure that no federally protected, private information had to be redacted. Contacted again three weeks later, the same spokesman, Matt Maurel, said we’d receive the information by the next day.

The Lens last spoke with Maurel on Friday; he said the documents  were still being reviewed and promised them Monday. We published our story at 11:32 a.m. Tuesday. At 12:53 p.m., we received investigations from 2010 and 2011 from the department’s counsel, Troy Humphrey. At 3:34 p.m., after reminding a spokesman that our request remained partially unfilled, we received the 2012 district investigations.

*Editor’s note: The story has been updated to reflect that the requested documents were received.

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...