More 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.

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...