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Four employees at Singleton fired after ‘systemic’ irregularities discovered on standardized tests

Four educators at James M. Singleton Charter School were fired last week after the state Department of Education voided standardized tests for about 165 students because of irregularities and suspected cheating.*

The state brought the allegations to Singleton’s board this fall. When the board started looking into the matter, chairman Darren Mire said, some answers from administration didn’t add up.

“As we were doing the cleanup, we realized this is a systematic problem,” he said. “We wanted to be prepared for the spring testing and that’s why we made the moves we made.”

School leader Rosemary Martin, district test coordinator and curriculum coordinator Tenisha Marcel, special education chairperson Cynthia Walker, and social worker Steven Byrd were terminated, Mire said.

A lawyer representing the educators said they had done nothing wrong and hadn’t been given a chance to defend themselves.

“It is a sad day in America when school employees are fired without a fair hearing,” Willie Zanders said.

The state voided tests for 21 students because they had a suspiciously high number of answers changed from wrong to right. On one of those tests, 25 answers had been changed.

The state conducts what’s called “answer change analysis” to identify tests with so many changed answers that they are statistically likely to be evidence of cheating.

LEAP tests in at least one subject were voided for 155 students because the school didn’t have documentation showing they deserved special accommodations, according to the Department of Education.*

Overall, the irregularities affected 165 students, some of whom had exams in all four subject areas voided.

Singleton has 410 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The Central City school is unique among charters in New Orleans because it’s run by the Dryades YMCA.

Last summer, the Louisiana Department of Education received a tip about testing irregularities at Singleton.

“The accusation stated that students were receiving copies of the LEAP test prior to taking the test, teachers and staff were taking the test for students, and test administrators were coaching students during the test,” wrote Jessica Baghian, who oversees testing for the department.

In October, after interviewing staff and students, the department alerted the board to its initial findings.

The state discovered some students “received accommodations that were not properly documented on the Individualized Education Program (IEP)” as required by state law and policy. An IEP describes how a school will accommodate a student’s learning disabilities.

Those accommodations vary. In some cases, teachers read questions and answers aloud to students. Some students get extra time to take the tests.

The state voided tests for 34 students in October due to those problems. In December, the state voided even more exams.*

Singleton earned a C letter grade from the state last year with a School Performance Score of 75.4, though Mire said he doesn’t think that accounts for the voided tests.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Education said the school’s score will be recalculated once the number of voided tests is finalized.

That’s slightly higher than its 69 in 2015-16, which earned it a C. In the 2014-15 school year, it scored a 47.4, a D.

The school must complete an investigation and submit a corrective action plan by Feb. 5.

Asked whether some students inappropriately received accommodations during testing, he responded, “If the files were not correct, yes, some did.”

The school is trying to sort out exactly which students simply lacked the proper paperwork and which shouldn’t have received help, he said.

The charter board used the three days that school was closed last week to install a new team. It introduced Tia Robertson as the new school leader in a statement on Tuesday.

“We want to let them know their kids are in good hands as we prepare for testing,” Mire said. “The bottom line is, we want to do what’s right for our parents and students.”

Mire said the four employees can appeal their termination.

Zanders offered specific defenses for some of the fired employees: Byrd wasn’t involved in testing at all, Marcel didn’t have anything to do with testing students with disabilities, and Marcel and Martin had been told by school CEO Gregory Phillips that the state “did not find any evidence that they were involved in any testing violations.”

“The Board of Directors will be asked to clear the good names of these employees because the terminations violated Board Policy,” Zanders said in a written statement. “Nothing negative will be said about the school because these educators love their students and the school.”

Test security has been a concern for New Orleans school leaders in recent years. Test scores at Landry-Walker High School plunged after its CEO at the time hired test monitors to observe classrooms. Administrators were suspended after NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune published results of the charter group’s investigation.

After the revelation, the two school districts that operate in New Orleans vowed to hire test security monitors for all charter schools that were up for a contract renewal or extension. Other charter leaders hired their own test monitors for one of four testing days.

The state Department of Education provided records related to the investigation, but did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Orleans Parish School Board, which plans to turn over its Mahalia Jackson Elementary School facility to the Dryades YMCA this summer, did not respond to a request for comment.

*Correction: This story originally said the number of students with voided tests ranged from 177 to 198, but because multiple tests were voided for some students at different times, the correct figure is 165. (Jan. 24, 2018)

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About Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.