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Board retracts cheating allegations against Moton school

20131024_150640More than a year after an Orleans Parish School Board cheating probe found that Robert Russa Moton Charter School staff gave students a leg up on the state’s LEAP test, the school board’s top official says the finding is invalid.

In a short letter to the board that governs Moton, school board Interim Superintendent Stan Smith retracted the board’s previous finding that staff gave 4th graders a sneak peek at a writing prompt for the state’s high-stakes test.

“Our review of the file documentation did not reveal any substantive evidence to support this allegation,” he wrote.

Because the original investigation was conducted more than a year after the alleged cheating would have occurred – students allegedly saw advance copies during the 2011 test administration, and the district investigation was in spring 2012 – and because the findings were largely based on student interviews, it’s hard to say if any cheating actually happened, Smith said in an interview.

His words signal a sharp switch from the school board’s stance last year. When former and current Moton employees told the school board there was cheating going on at the school, the district launched its investigation, Deputy Superintendent of Charter Schools Kathy Padian said.

After interviewing several students who said Moton’s test prep material was similar or identical to the LEAP test, district test coordinator Bridget Brown said “it appears that students within this sample were provided access to the writing prompt” in advance.

Padian said she’s unsure why the board is retracting its findings a year later.

“I don’t know why, in this district, decisions that were made are not final, and why a year later we’re are looking at it again,” she said.

While there was no second investigation conducted, there was a separate administrative review of that investigation. In the initial investigation done in May, Padian took the lead in contacting the school officials to inform them  of Brown’s findings and to notify them of consequences.

But in August, Chief Academic Officer Rosalynne Dennis reviewed Brown’s findings and decided there wasn’t enough evidence that someone at the school cheated, Smith confirmed. Moton’s internal investigation into the cheating allegations, and an outside review of the parish school board’s investigation protocol took a year to complete, he said.

Smith’s letter to the Moton board about the second review is dated Aug. 14, 2013.

However, Moton’s board didn’t announce the letter until its Wednesday night meeting – more than two months later, and one day before the release of 2013 School Performance Scores for Moton and other schools around the state.

Cheating allegations come after continual score decline

With a 2013 school performance score of 61.9, or a “D,” Moton is the lowest performing of the Orleans Parish School Board’s nearly 20 schools.

The “D” grade holds under the state’s old school performance score system, which was calibrated on a 200-point scale – under that system Moton would have been an 88.7, or a high “D”; an 11-point drop from 2012’s 100.1 “C” grade.

Scores have been on the decline for several years, according to a review of state data. Scores also dropped by 11 points in 2012, down from 2011’s 111.6.

State testing monitors visited the school in 2010 and 2011, and found no issues of cheating. The Lens has not yet received monitoring information for 2012 or 2013 from the state education department.

Moton principal Paulette Bruno says test score declines are because the school “can’t get stable” – the peripatetic school has moved four times in seven years.

“A permanent location for Moton, which will finally happen in January, 2015, will improve the school’s academic environment,” Bruno said in a statement.*

Retraction comes after legal threat, board intervention

Dennis’ intervention and the change of heart come after Moton officials appeared before the board in multiple committee meetings, protesting the district’s initial investigation and even threatening to sue.

Moton went along with the corrective actions Padian prescribed. The staff member the district felt was most responsible ultimately retired; the school reviewed its training on test security; and the school board limited Moton’s access to test materials in advance of the test. However, Bruno has maintained that the district went about its investigation improperly.

She and former New Orleans Public Schools area superintendent Roslyn Smith, a Moton consultant, told the Orleans Parish School Board at a December 2012 committee meeting that they’d sue unless the board examined its procedures.

When testing coordinator Bridget Brown went to Moton to conduct her investigation, “she did not even give us due process,” Bruno said. “She did not even say that we had been implicated in something.”

After Bruno and Roslyn Smith’s protests, the school board agreed to hire another law firm, Hammonds, Sills, Adkins and Guice, LLP, to look into its investigations protocol. That firm found no issues with its methods, Stan Smith said.

Though he said the board took a year to retract its finding because it was waiting to complete that review and for Moton to complete its own review, Bruno said the retraction was a result of pressure on the board from her and other Moton officials.

“We didn’t let it die. We kept requesting meetings, and it’s like, ‘What? It’s over.’ Oh, no, it’s not over. Your name is not out there. It’s not over,” she said.

Educators say the retraction lifts ‘cloud’

There was never any real evidence that anyone cheated, Bruno said, although students may have told Brown that the test questions looked similar to what they reviewed in practice sessions.

The state provides sample test questions for educators to use to prep students and to know what to expect on the tests, she explained. The students may have noticed that actual test material seemed similar to what they went over in practice sessions, but no one opened test booklets in advance, she said.

Bruno echoed Stan Smith: because investigators questioned students so far after the fact, it’s hard to draw conclusions.

Roslyn Smith told the Moton board Wednesday that the retraction was good news for Moton.

“For approximately a year, Moton School has been under a cloud. And I’m talking about the cloud of false accusations and other accusations.”

She thanked the parish school board for “sticking to it,” and said she hoped the school’s clearance would get the same public attention as the original investigation did.

Stan Smith said the board’s retraction doesn’t mean it’s backing down, reminding a reporter that Moton implemented nearly all corrective actions the board recommended, save one – the district did not send a letter home to parents, as it originally threatened to do. Instead, Moton officials appeared before the school board’s accountability committee.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Paulette Bruno’s statement regarding when the school would move into a permanent location.

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About 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 reporting on charter school transparency and governance. In 2012, she was part of a team that received a National Edward R. Murrow Award for their work following a New Orleans family's recovery after Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Edna Karr Secondary School in Algiers, and she obtained her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. She can be reached at (504) 575-8191.

  • nickelndime

    Usually I have negative things to say about Kathleen Padian, but I am going to skip right over her and go straight to the heart of the matter: There are 2 culprits (currently employed by the OPSB) and an old OPSB employee: Stan Smith, Rosalynne Dennis (CAO) and Roslyn Smith (a former Area Superintendent), respectively, who are behaving irresponsibly in their positions. Were there or were there not former and current employees of Moton who said that cheating was going on? And what about the initial investigation conducted by Lee C. Reid of Adams and Reese, LLP (hired by the Moton Board to conduct an internal investigation and who managed to have one employee “retire” (leave the school’s employ) – the one whom it concluded was most responsible for questionable testing practices, but maintained there was no cheating – RED FLAG!)? Personally, I think the whole thing now stinks worse than before and is an effort by Smith and Dennis (and even members of the OPSB) to wipe the slate clean for Moton and perhaps rationalize why Moton will get a new building (OPSB Property Committee Chair – Nolan Marshall, II (Jr.) steered this one. This is not going to get better any time soon, and it is these kinds of actions that cause the public to continue its mistrust of the OPSB and why it is so difficult to lure former schools back into local control (the greater of two evils – OPSB versus RSD-State).

  • scotchirish
  • disqus_qtvF4sydqM

    Allow me to express gratitude to Jessica Williams and The Lens for this follow-up story refuting the Time-Picayune August 26, 2012 front page pronouncement “School cheated on LEAP, probe finds.” It was untrue. The subheading on their article read, “But N.O. charter denies accusation.” That part was true. To her credit, Ms. Williams followed the story for over a year, awaiting information from the involved charter school board and the Orleans Parish School Board during several appearances at OPSB committee meetings in the last 11 months.

    The Advocates for Innovative Schools, Inc. which governs Moton never wavered in its position that allegations of cheating and testing Irregularities at Robert Russa Moton Charter School for Technology and Performing Arts were unfounded. However, it took their strong insistence that the reported evidence be reexamined by an official of the Interim Superintendent’s choosing, before the report was overturned.

    The first report, prepared by the OPSB District Test Coordinator under the supervision of the Deputy Superintendent of Charter Schools, and sent to the Louisiana Department of Education in May of 2012, falsely labeled a 40-year
    veteran teacher as a cheater and sullied the reputation of the district’s only open access, year-round school. Finally, that dedicated former teacher and the school have been exonerated!

    The Interim Superintendent’s letter, which was read into the record at the Advocates Board meeting, clearly states that a review of the file documentation did not reveal any substantive evidence to support the allegation of cheating. He further wrote, “It should be noted that the test scores for Moton Charter School were never invalidated by OPSB or LDE. “

    The threat of possible legal action was needed to force the district to take another look at their “evidence” and, if necessary, reverse their incorrect disciplinary action. The OPSB’s position on Moton’s conduct is now a matter of record. The quotes in the article from the Deputy Superintendent and Interim Superintendent read as if they are equivocating about the district’s position. When its employees continue to contradict that position in print—including the “at will” Deputy Superintendent, whose role in the district is to entice charter schools like Moton to return to OPSB—they send conflicting messages to school leaders and families alike.

    This was good news for Moton parents, students and other supporters. It is the only OPSB authorized school still operating in rental property. The school has relocated 4 times in 7 years and does not have a permanent site. The students don’t have access to a library, the internet or a computer lab. Not surprisingly, test scores have declined. But, Moton will be in a new state-of-the-art facility in January of 2015. The cloud of cheating accusations has been lifted. Things are looking brighter for the Owls.

  • nickelndime

    Then, everybody (Interim Superintendent, CAO, Deputy Superintendent, Board, et al.) over at the OPSB is not on the same page?! Well, that’s an eye opener for me. Having said that, anybody who sues (or threatens to sue) someone (1, 2, or 3+) into submission is a bully (paraphrasing of a quote from “The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo”). BTW, I like Jessica Williams’ reporting, but I will continue to stand by my formerly stated opinions that (1) The OPSB central office was and still is bloated (too many employees) and overpaid, and (2) There was something going on over at Moton that looked like, walked like, and made sounds like a duck (metaphorically speaking). LOL!!!

  • nickelndime

    It is (or certainly should be) one of the job duties of the Deputy Superintendent of Charter Schools to entice “eligible” charter schools to return to local control (i.e., from the RSD to OPSB), but MOTON is already an OPSB charter school (a Type 3 conversion), so that is not like a choice for MOTON to return to local control unless the MOTON Board wants to secede from OPSB control and then decide where it wants to go from there (Ha!). Maybe somebody can get a legislator to try that one – legislatively speaking.

  • scotchirish

    The same look, sounds, and walk as when they got caught in Atlanta and elsewhere.

  • nickelndime

    You’ve got it right, scotchirish, nationally and locally. I am surprised that more local ducks have not been caught waddling around, but then I see that Jessica Williams has a new article out on New Orleans schools (I mean ducks) which show comparatively higher rates of testing irregularities. Perhaps the MOTON group protesteth too loudly. Let us see what the other ducks have done when so much rideth on the outcome. Just wait until the next round (2014) of test results comes out. It will make the 2013 testing irregularities look like random pencil erasures.