Students mingle in the hallway at Virgil Middle School in Koreatown. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
A Koreatown campus that is one of the fastest-improving middle schools in Los Angeles has become the latest to be penalized over suspected cheating on the state's standardized tests.
Virgil Middle School's misfortune brings to 23 the number of schools in California that have lost their important Academic Performance Index rating because of suspected cheating, other misconduct or mistakes by teachers.
But in this instance, officials are concerned that the suspected actions of one teacher could cost the school a state grant worth more than $3.5 million over the next three years. The money, which pays for about a fourth of the teaching staff, requires schools to meet improvement targets that are linked to the API scores.
Virgil is the second affected campus within L.A. Unified, the state's largest school system. The other is high-performing Short Avenue Elementary in Del Rey, where three teachers are suspected of improperly coaching students, changing answers on tests or both.
The accused teacher at Virgil was a veteran algebra instructor who spoke about her case but asked that her name not be used because allegations haven't been proved and she wants to protect her reputation. The instructor, who acknowledged that she'd been under pressure to improve her teaching, defended both her integrity and her effectiveness.
Officials have accused her of scanning the test into her computer, then preparing a review sheet for students based on actual test questions, according to documents submitted to the California Department of Education.
"It was egregious," said L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy, adding that the district moved to dismiss the teacher, who opted to retire.
One of the teachers at Short Avenue also has retired.
The Virgil teacher suggested that either she was framed or that campus administrators, eager to push her into retirement, jumped to hasty and mistaken conclusions.
"I was collecting all questions and trying to make a folder electronically," said the instructor, who taught for decades at Virgil. "I had a stack of questions I had collected from the teachers."
After being accused, "I was told they were going to do some kind of criminal investigation and I would lose all [my] years of service," the instructor said, referring to her pension and retiree health benefits. "I was scared."
The teacher said she had been under pressure for several years from administrators who questioned her performance. Before that, she said, she'd had years of strong evaluations.
The suspected cheating came to light after the teacher fell and fractured her shoulder on the first day of testing.
A student told an adult about seeing the same questions on the test as on a review sheet. Interviews with students elicited the same account, said Principal James Kodani. The teacher had left her flash drive in a computer at school when she was injured, and a scan of the test was on that flash drive, he said.
The teacher had 93 algebra students whose scores could have been affected, among 1,277 students with math scores. Virgil's API score would have been 714, a steep 51-point rise from the previous year.
"Virgil is making really good progress," Deasy said. "I can tell you people at the school are really disappointed."
"We had worked so hard as a staff," said a Virgil teacher who accepted a job at another campus this year. One teacher sobbed, she said, when Kodani first alerted faculty in June that Virgil might lose its ranking. That teacher had tutored students before and after school.
Over the last five years, the school undertook new programs aimed at improving instruction, including a weekly review of sixth-grade math skills — data used to develop lesson plans. The school used new reading programs and scheduled extra intervention periods for students below grade level. Teachers also analyzed the test formats and publicly released items from past exams to design corresponding curriculum.
Then-principal Ada Snethen-Stevens also began to gather documentation on teachers she judged ineffective. One of those was the teacher accused of misconduct, the teacher and other sources confirmed. Snethen-Stevens, who now oversees principals at 12 schools, declined to discuss the performance of individual teachers.
Three years ago, a group of students circulated a petition asking for a different teacher, saying they weren't learning enough in her class, according to a student organizer and several staff members. Another teacher agreed to work with the students after school.