Sophie B. Wright School on Napoleon Avenue in the spring of 2019. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Thirty-four New Orleans public schools had at least one state standardized exam voided last school year due to test policy violations or suspected cheating, according to the Louisiana Department of Education’s annual testing irregularities report

Across the state, 1,497 exams at 299 schools were voided for a variety of reasons, ranging from administrative errors, such as an administrator giving students extra time, to suspected cheating. In total, 134 exams, at 34 public schools, were voided in Orleans Parish, out of about 80 public schools in the city.  Last year, 26 New Orleans public schools had 225 voided tests. Of those, 144 were from John F. Kennedy High School.

The majority of this year’s voids, both statewide and in the NOLA Public Schools district, were a result of testing policy violations rather than suspected cheating. 

In New Orleans, 17 tests were voided due to plagiarism and seven due to abnormally high numbers of wrong-to-right answer changes. 

Nearby Jefferson Parish public schools had 218 exams voided overall, St. Tammany public schools saw 30 exams voided, and the St. Bernard Parish school district had 5 exams voided.

Test security has been a focus in New Orleans since increased test scores from Landry-Walker High School plummeted between 2013-14 and 2014-15 — when external test monitors were added by the school to observe classrooms during state testing. After that, the Recovery School District required its charters to hire test monitors. NOLA Public Schools also hired a test monitoring company

The district did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding specific incidents reported this year and generally about how it conducts test security now. 

The state conducts spot checks at some schools during state testing. Last school year, staff conducted 268 site visits during testing. 

NOLA Public Schools oversees 33 of those 34 public schools in the city that had voids. The other was International High School of New Orleans, which is a state-authorized school. 

Across the state, 99 exams were voided due to plagiarism. City schools accounted for 17 of those, including 13 exams at Sophie B. Wright Charter School. Wright’s CEO Sharon Clark said she couldn’t recall details of why the exams were voided. 

Four city schools had more than 10 exams voided, including Wright, McDonogh 35 Senior High School, Landry-Walker, and Joseph Clark Preparatory High School. Clark only had a senior class last year and closed over last summer. 

At McDonogh 35 Senior High School, which was operated directly by NOLA Public Schools last year, 12 exams were voided by staff reports. For years, the district has been phasing out traditional schools, and New Orleans became the first all-charter city over the summer after the district handed McDonogh 35 to InspireNOLA charter group. The charter group, which is now operating a contract school to close out older grades while simultaneously starting a new high school, confirmed that it did not supervise testing at the school last year. 

“We did not facilitate testing for 35 last year,” InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely wrote in an email. “It was done by the district.”

At Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy, which the district took over mid-year, 7 tests were categorized as voided due to problems discovered through erasure analysis. The district did not respond to questions about what happened at Harney. 

Ambria Washington, the communications director for Algiers Charter School Association, which oversees Landry-Walker High School — which had 12 voided tests — said the majority of the school’s voids were self-reported.

“Several factors led to the voids in question, including students who attempted to bring in prohibited electronic devices into the testing environment and plagiarism occurrences,” Washington wrote in an email. “Since the 2018-2019 school year, we’ve implemented extensive training each year to ensure testing protocols and procedures are followed.”

Across town, McMillian’s First Steps Academy, a private school that participates in the state’s voucher program, had 32 LEAP exams voided by school staff, according to the report. The school came under scrutiny last year for increasing tuition annually and an investigation into cheating on exams. It’s unclear from the report what led to those voids.

“The LDOE takes all allegations of cheating seriously,” the report says. “When schools exhibit extremely unusual gains and/or significant evidence of malfeasance, schools are referred to the Office of the State Inspector General for review and possible further investigation.”

After reviewing exams from the 2018-19 school year, the state referred 39 schools to the IG. It’s unclear how many of those are in New Orleans, if any. A spokeswoman for the state department of education* said state law prohibited the department from naming the schools publicly.

*Correction: A state spokeswoman provided this information.

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...