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`Evidence of tampering' cited.

Byline: Thomas Caywood

WORCESTER - A state education official looking into improbably big gains in MCAS scores at the Goddard School last summer cited "evidence of tampering" across several grades in calling for the scores to be tossed out and a full investigation launched, according to emails obtained by the Telegram & Gazette.

In public statements, state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Worcester Public Schools officials have characterized MCAS problems at the Goddard School of Science and Technology vaguely as "testing irregularities."

But a few messages among state MCAS analysts and test security officials, which were recently turned over to the newspaper under the state's Public Records Law, show that in private communications among themselves officials discussed indications that educators at the school may have helped students or otherwise interfered with the test to boost scores.

Last August, Robert Lee, chief analyst in the state education department's student assessment services division, sent an email to colleagues expressing his opinion that all of Goddard's 2010 MCAS results should be tossed out pending a full investigation.

"There's enough evidence of tampering in several, but not all, grades to warrant further investigation," he wrote.

A few months later, Mr. Lee sent another email to colleagues with the subject line "Specific violations of Test Administration Requirements." While his discussion of those violations is almost entirely blacked out, or redacted, in the documents provided by the state, the rules he lists include those barring teachers and administrators from looking at test booklets, reviewing student answers and coaching students during the test.

He also listed a requirement that test administrators must ensure that "students provide answers that are strictly their own." In that section of the message, Mr. Lee noted that in several cases formulas were written upside down in student test booklets, raising the possibility that test proctors standing on the other side of a desk wrote them.

Terry Roy, an educator misconduct investigator for the department, was copied on the email.

Mr. Lee's comments about tampering and upside-down formulas initially were redacted from the documents turned over to the T&G in February. The state provided a second set of slightly less-redacted records late last month after a lawyer for the newspaper challenged the legal basis of the extensive redactions.

School Superintendent Melinda J. Boone said that while she was briefed on the high level of erasures found by state investigators on student answer sheets, she was not privy to the specific concerns revealed in the emails.

"That's the first I'm hearing of that. This idea of formulas written upside down is news to me," Ms. Boone said.

In seeking to justify blacking out the entire bodies of scores of emails and documents, the city school district and state education department have cited an exemption to the state's Public Records Law designed to protect the integrity of open law enforcement investigations in criminal cases. Records turned over to School Committee members seeking additional information also were heavily redacted.

School Committee member Brian A. O'Connell said the latest glimpse into the nature of the improper conduct that prompted the state to toss out the MCAS results for the entire school trouble him.

"I never heard the term `tampering' brought up during the discussion last winter or in any of the paperwork. It's a new slant on the topic, and it does raise a question about intent," Mr. O'Connell said.

School Committee member Tracy O'Connell Novick, who has been critical of what she sees as excessive secrecy surrounding the probe, said the newly released messages further call into question the state's handling of the issue.

"If anyone at the state thought there was evidence of tampering, then the solution shouldn't have been what we got, which was just that the scores don't count and the principal is under a cloud, and that's the end of that," Ms. O'Connell Novick said.

Mayor Joseph C. O'Brien, chairman of the School Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.

Ms. Boone said the state handled the investigation while she has focused her efforts on implementing stricter test controls.

"We have retrained our principals and people in the district, and we are now monitoring and spot-checking to make sure the practices are in place so that test scores won't be questioned again," she said. "That should have been the district's practice all along, but it wasn't. It will be going forward."

The latest round of MCAS scores are expected to be released in September, she said.

The state investigation of the Goddard 2010 scores began last year after analysts questioned improbably large gains in student performance across all grades in both English and math, according to the state records.

The percentage of Goddard students rated proficient in English and math jumped significantly, more than doubling in several cases, in all four grades taught at the elementary school and in both subject areas, according to the invalidated test results obtained by the T&G in February.

The portion of Goddard third-graders scoring proficient in English language arts, for example, shot up to 40 percent in last year's test compared to 15 percent the previous year. And the percentage of all students in Grades 3 through 6 scoring proficient in math doubled from 25 percent to 50 percent, according to a chart contained in the records.

Ms. O'Connell Novick said that despite her repeated efforts to get more information from the state and district, the School Committee is no closer to knowing exactly what happened at the school and how widespread it was.

"We have to be up front and aboveboard and as clear and honest as humanly possible about what happened, but that never felt like that was the priority, especially for the state," she said.

Ms. O'Connell Novick contrasted the state's steadfast refusal to disclose specifics about improper conduct on the part of test administrators at Goddard and a Boston elementary school last year with the open and public report of an investigation into widespread and systemic cheating on Georgia curriculum tests in Atlanta public schools. The Georgia report, released by the governor's office last month, spelled out exactly what had happened and even named teachers and principals involved in manipulating test results and subsequent cover-ups.

While the misconduct in Atlanta was far more serious and widespread and may result in criminal prosecutions, Ms. O'Connell Novick said there's no reason why Massachusetts shouldn't be equally as transparent as Georgia.

A lawyer for the state education department defended the extensive redactions in a letter to the newspaper's lawyer that accompanied the latest version of the records saying disclosing more detailed information about what happened at Goddard would compromise the department's ability to ensure the security and integrity of MCAS testing.

Mr. O'Connell said he fears that concealing the specifics of what happened at Goddard could have the opposite effect.

"I felt from the beginning that we'd be far better off to bring all the facts up to the surface and make sure this issue never happens again," he said.

Contact Thomas Caywood by email at tcaywood@telegram.com.

NAME: MASSACHUSETTS COMPREHENSIVE ASSESSMENT SYSTEM

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: The Goddard School of Science and Technology on Richards Street.

PHOTOG: T&G Staff File Photo/RICK CINCLAIR
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 7, 2011
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