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State strips 23 schools of API rankings for cheating

Teachers helped students correct mistakes on standardized tests, prepared them with actual test questions or left instructional posters displayed in the classroom during testing, according to school district reports.

October 28, 2012|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • A student fills in his answer to the practice test question for a standardized test.
A student fills in his answer to the practice test question for a standardized… (Anitta C. Charlson / MCT )

The third-grader had good news: She was doing great on her standardized tests, she proudly told a teacher at the school.

How did she know? the instructor asked.

"My teacher points out the answers that I need to correct," she said.

With that, the fate of Westside Elementary in Thermal was sealed.

State officials have stripped Westside and 22 other schools of a key state ranking for cheating, other misconduct or mistakes in administering the standardized tests given last spring. The offenses ranged from failing to cover bulletin boards to more overt improprieties, including helping students correct mistakes or preparing them with actual test questions. The details were included in school district reports obtained by the Times through a public records request filed with the California Department of Education.

The state defines such episodes as "adult irregularities," and if they affect at least 5% of students tested at a school, the campus loses its annual rating on California's Academic Performance Index, which was released this month.

DOCUMENT: Read the "adult irregularity" reports

The API is a scale by which schools are officially measured in California. Top rankings are celebrated and contribute to high property values. Low scores can label schools as failures and trigger penalties.

The number of schools with invalidated test scores remains relatively small: about two dozen each of the last three years in a state with more than 10,000 schools.

Some teachers may have thought they were within bounds when in fact they weren't.

A fifth-grade teacher at Short Avenue Elementary in the Del Rey neighborhood told her students in advance to jot down such helpful clues as multiplication tables, fraction-to-decimal conversions and number lines on scratch paper prior to starting the tests, according to a Los Angeles Unified report. On exam day, she allegedly walked around the classroom making encouraging remarks to make sure students followed through. That sort of test-day coaching is against the rules and cost Short Avenue its ranking. The teacher has since retired, according to the district.

Short Avenue also lost its API score last year for alleged testing mistakes, improper coaching or outright cheating by three popular teachers. All were pulled from campus and have since retired; at least two faced being fired if they didn't leave.

A teacher this year at Baldwin Lane Elementary in Big Bear City, stopped just short of handing out answers, but only just, a school report said.

She used "facial expressions" to cue students on right or wrong answers: "smiles, blank stares, etc.," the report said. She also allegedly would direct students to redo problems or place dots beside incorrect answers.

She even "corrected student tests and sent students back to their desk to fix incorrect responses" and "helped set up math problems where students couldn't themselves," the report said.

Later, the teacher, who also was the school's testing coordinator, "informed parents that their student had done well on portions of the test," which is something that, according to the rules, the teacher would have no knowledge of at that point, the report said.

Allegations of similarly aggressive coaching from a teacher invalidated eighth-grade geometry scores as well as sixth- and seventh-grade math tests at high-performing Adams Middle School in Redondo Beach, which otherwise would have recorded its best results.

There was no direct coaching, but a displayed cornucopia of reference material in a fifth-grade class at Global Family Elementary School in Oakland. During six days of testing, instructional material covered three walls and hung from light fixtures, including posters containing science vocabulary and directions for "adding and subtracting decimals, how to find the perimeter and volume of geometric figures … and conjugation of common English verbs," said a school report.

Teachers at six other schools were suspected of prepping students, at least in part, with actual test questions, including at Capistrano Elementary in the west San Fernando Valley and ICEF Inglewood Elementary Charter Academy.

A teacher in Camarillo displayed the test booklet with her "document camera and projector," a school report said.

DOCUMENT: Read the "adult irregularity" reports

Teachers in Garden Grove, Fresno and Sunnyvale allegedly read ahead in the test booklet while their students were taking the tests. Then they tried to go over questions or material about a test topic with students in advance, before they reached that section, according to school reports.

At Arroyo Valley High in San Bernardino, "slam the exam" review materials for biology were distributed among 11 teachers, including one who allegedly used the prep package with 141 students. The teacher who put together the review claimed all the sample problems came from appropriate sources, according to an investigation.

It turned out that 19 of 60 were exact matches with the state test.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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