The state has slashed James M. Singleton Charter School’s 2017 state performance rating from a C to a D after invalidating 165 students’ state standardized tests — 40 percent of the 410-student school — due to testing irregularities.

The state analyzed exams and found 21 had unusually high number of answers changed from wrong to right. Other students received special education help, but the school couldn’t prove they deserved it.

What Singleton’s former CEO chalked up to a paperwork error last fall was later described as “a systematic problem” by Darren Mire, who chairs the charter school’s governing board.

Last summer, the Louisiana Department of Education received a tip about testing irregularities at the Central City charter school, which is run by the Dryades YMCA.

“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.

165Singleton students who had at least one 2017 exam voided410Singelton’s total 2017 enrollment

The state uses annual student test scores to grade each school. These school letter grades are particularly important for charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, because they rely on the grades for contract renewals.

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 Times-Picayune published results of the charter group’s investigation.

After the revelation, the state and Orleans Parish School Board 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.

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

The state discovered some students were given extra assistance on tests even if their individualized education plans, or IEPs, did not call for those accommodations. 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.

In an initial response to the state’s findings that students were given improper accommodations on state tests, then-Singleton CEO Gregory Phillips wrote that the accommodations were “an inadvertent documentation error” and that students were just being thorough on the high-stakes tests.

But in January, after the state took action against the school, Phillips fired four administrators. At the time, their lawyer, Willie Zanders, said they did nothing wrong. Zanders did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

Soon after that, Phillips resigned. In a February letter, the school detailed a plan to fix the testing problems at the school. As to Phillips’ contention that the errors were inadvertent, Mire told The Lens that the board had been misled.

In total, 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.

The state also 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.

There was some overlap between the two groups. Some students had exams voided for both reasons. In total, the irregularities affected 165 students, some of whom had exams in all four subject areas voided.

As a result of the problems in 2017, the school was required to take several precautionary measures during testing this year. The state issued a corrective action plan for the school. The state did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Last fall, the Orleans Parish School Board decided to give the Mahalia Jackson school building to Singleton to expand its program. Singleton was part of the state-run Recovery School District until July 1 when it transferred back to local control. In February, after the testing irregularities became public, Dryades announced it would no longer pursue the expansion plan.

Orleans Parish school district officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The state officially downgraded the school’s 2017 grade this spring. Singleton is now just 1.4 points above an F rating.

School scores for 2018 will be released in the coming months.

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...