The Louisiana Department of Education has formally warned the Dryades YMCA that it violated its rules for charter schools due to problems that led the state to void standardized tests for 165 students at James M. Singleton Charter School last fall.

Most of those tests were voided because students got accommodations meant for those with special-education needs. Some were voided because too many answers had been changed from wrong to right, indicating cheating.

The Y, which operates the school at its facility in Central City, fired Singleton’s school leader and three educators in January. The CEO of the Y resigned, effective mid-March.

The Y has also backed out of its plan to take over the nearby Mahalia Jackson Elementary School facility, which houses a health clinic and a preschool program.

In a letter to the state last week, Dryades YMCA board chairman Darren Mire promised to increase test security and review special education at the charter school. He asked the state to reconsider some of the voided tests.

That won’t happen “because the documentation was not in place at the time the test was administered,” state Education Department spokeswoman Sydni Dunn said Thursday.

That means the state will recalculate school’s C letter grade. With tests for 165 students voided at the 410-student school — not all of whom take standardized tests — its grade could drop.

Of the 165 students, 143 had exams voided because they received special accommodations and the school couldn’t produce paperwork to justify it.

Some students had one LEAP exam voided; for others, exams in all four subject areas were voided.

Mire wrote in his letter that the school had hired a firm to investigate the suspicious tests. He described plans to bolster test security and ensure special-education services are provided appropriately.

He reported that the four employees were fired because they “contributed to issues discovered during the independent audit” of students’ special-education records.

A lawyer for the employees has said they did nothing wrong.

In an interview, Mire said the state “seemed pleased with our personnel changes and our board for acting so swiftly.”

It’s unclear if the school failed to provide special education services outside the tests. When we asked Mire, he said the school is still reviewing students’ files.

School will hire testing monitors and increase test security

Singleton will update the school’s test security policy, hire a company to train staff on it, and hire a test monitor to observe state testing this year.

Employees who don’t participate in the training will be disciplined and won’t be allowed at the school during testing this spring, Mire wrote.

Before testing begins, the state requires Singleton to restrict access to the computer-based testing platform.

The monitoring company will watch school employees during tests and report any infractions of rules or policy. The state wants to see any reports of violations, too.

In 2016, all Recovery School District schools and the Orleans Parish School Board hired test monitors after Algiers Charter, a group of five schools on the West Bank, reported test scores had dropped at its high school after its CEO hired test monitors.

Mire said Singleton plans to hire Caveon Test Security, the company hired by the school districts.

Caveon is nationally recognized, but its reputation took a hit in 2011 when Georgia investigators said it vastly underrepresented the extent of cheating in Atlanta Public Schools. Thirty-five educators were eventually indicted in the nation’s largest standardized-test cheating scandal.

Three days after Mire sent his letter, Chief of Staff Laura Hawkins responded with a three-page warning and corrective action plan. The warning is the second of three types of discipline, charters receive from the state.

Singleton has a list of deadlines starting March 1 to do things like submit documentation for all students who need testing accommodations.

CEO defended students and staff

Mire’s letter is a turnaround from the YMCA’s initial response to the state’s cheating allegations. Last fall, CEO Gregory Phillips wrote that the accommodations were “an inadvertent documentation error” and that students were just being thorough on the high-stakes tests.

In October, the Department of Education voided 21 tests after an analysis flagged them for having an excessively high number of answers changed from wrong to right. Its system identifies any tests with a highly unusual number of changed answers that indicate cheating.

Phillips explained the unusual number of changed answers by saying students were taught to make good use of extra time “by double and triple checking answers for an opportunity to correct any hasty errors.”

“If there were verbal prompts in a room from an instructor, we believe students who would not have benefitted from such [a] prompt would have assisted in uncovering any ‘help’ being given to their peers,” he wrote.

“No test-taker complained of any such issues.”

He asked the state not to make an issue of the matter.

“We would like to avoid any unwarranted and unfair impact on the school’s reputation in the public, which would obviously adversely impact our student and staff recruitment efforts and undoubtedly put a cloud of suspicion over our hard-earned performance improvement over the last two years,” Phillips wrote.

Mire said in an interview that the YMCA doesn’t stand behind what Phillips wrote.

“That letter was basically submitted, in my opinion, because the board was misled,” he said. “What changed? We did an investigation, that’s what really changed.”

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...