From 2019, John F. Kennedy High School at Lake Area on Paris Avenue. Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

Last spring, 144 U.S. History exams at John F. Kennedy High School were voided after students were given the wrong version of the test, a state education department spokeswoman confirmed.

According to a recently issued state report on testing irregularities, the 144 voided tests at the Gentilly high school account for about one-fifth of all such problems statewide.

Students took the proper exam after the New Beginnings Schools Foundation — the charter network that runs Kennedy — reported the problem, according to Louisiana Department of Education spokeswoman Sydni Dunn.

The tests are so-called “end-of-course exams,” which are administered by the state. Of the 144 exams at Kennedy, four were voided completely and did not count as part of the school’s 2018 state performance score, which was a C overall. The other students’ second test counted, she said. Dunn said those factors were accounted for in the school’s 2018 school performance score.

”The Board will add this to the ongoing investigation.”—New Beginnings attorney Michelle Craig

It doesn’t appear the issue is related to the allegations of grade inflation the school and district are currently investigating at the 690-student high school, formerly known as Lake Area New Tech Early College High School. The network placed its CEO on paid leave last week pending the results of an independent investigation. The New Beginnings governing board has called a special meeting on Thursday to discuss “allegations of misconduct,” according to a board agenda.

In an email, New Beginnings’ attorney Michelle Craig said the network couldn’t comment on the voided exams. However, she added, “The Board will add this to the ongoing investigation.”

Previous coverage: F to D grade changes at Kennedy High School are suspicious, former administrator says

New Beginnings administrators did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Louisiana has been in the process of transitioning to new exams that match higher state standards over the last several years. Last year, the high school U.S. History test was one of those updated tests.

“As part of that transition, the state made both the new and old versions of that exam available for districts and students,” Dunn wrote. “This was to ensure students had access to the exam that aligned with what they were taught in class.”

Dunn said students who were taught with the old curriculum were supposed to take the previous version of the test. Students who learned under the new curriculum were supposed to take the new version.

“The Department communicated extensively with districts in the months leading to the test administration to ensure instructions were clear on how to properly administer the U.S. History tests,” Dunn wrote. “Lake Area did not properly administer the correct form of the U.S. History exams to all students, and the district reported the error to the state.”

“Students had to retake the correct version of the exam,” Dunn wrote.

The voided exams are spelled out in the department’s annual test irregularities report, which will be delivered to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meetings next week.

Kennedy wasn’t the only school to report voided exams, but the Gentilly school had by far the most.

“If schools or districts find a violation of test security, the violations must be reported to the LDOE,” the report states. “When LDOE staff confirm a violation … tests are considered invalid and are subsequently voided.”

Kennedy’s 144 voids represent about 20 percent of 697 school-district-initiated voids at 251 schools reported across the state. (Total voided tests statewide, including those voided by the Department of Education, came to 1,221.) The next highest was Homer High School in Claiborne Parish with 40 reported voids on EOC exams.

Testing problems

Dunn said administering the wrong test, like what happened at Kennedy, is not common. But several schools have had testing issues over the years.

Last year, administrators at Joseph M. Singleton Charter School were fired after the state discovered the school gave special testing accommodations to students who weren’t eligible for the extra help.

Accommodations can range from extra testing time to having a teacher read the exam aloud for a student. But students must have written justification to receive such accommodations. In this case, Singleton students didn’t have the required paperwork, state officials said.

About 165 students had exams voided and eventually the state dropped the school’s 2017 letter grade from a C to a D.

After a cheating scandal at Landry-Walker High School in Algiers, at least four employees were eventually fired or not re-hired. The investigation revealed inconsistencies in students’ class grades compared to state test scores, and the school’s performance plummeted the following year after more testing monitors were placed at the high school, Times-Picayune reported in 2016.

That led the state-run Recovery School District to implement new test-monitoring policies.

The RSD required all of its charter schools to hire an independent test monitor to observe one day of testing in its schools. The RSD paid for test monitoring at schools that were up for charter contract renewal — the high-stakes year when tests largely determine whether charters will receive another contract and stay open. The Orleans Parish School Board followed suit.

A spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish school district declined to comment for this story, referring The Lens to the state Department of Education.

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...