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11-14-12 Education Issues in the News
Press of Atlantic City - School elections…More democratic NJ Spotlight - Department of Education Cheating

Investigation Implicates Two More Schools…Report claims that improvements in test scores at Robert Treat Academy, a high-profile charter, defy all odds

Star Ledger - 6 N.J. educators breached security on standardized tests, report says

Press of Atlantic City - School elections…More democratic

NJ Spotlight - Department of Education Cheating Investigation Implicates Two More Schools…Report claims that improvements in test scores at Robert Treat Academy, a high-profile charter, defy all odds

Star Ledger - 6 N.J. educators breached security on standardized tests, report says

 

Press of Atlantic City - School elections…More democratic

Posted: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 12:01 am

New Jersey's experiment in moving school elections from April to November seems to have worked well. Early reports from last week's contests show that the number of voters weighing in on school board elections was way up, in some towns double the usual turnout.

School elections have generally had very low participation rates. Most draw about 10 percent to 15 percent of eligible voters. Some districts record voting percentages in the single digits.

Many people have argued that with such low turnouts, school election results aren't really representative of a community's wishes. The small numbers mean that special-interest groups can have a disproportionate influence on the results.

Earlier this year, about 85 percent of the state's districts chose to take advantage of the opportunity to move voting from April to the November general election. The law allowing the move was intended to save election costs, which can be a big deal in small districts. As an incentive, districts that moved to November elections will no longer have to submit their budgets for voter approval, as long as they keep tax levy increases below 2 percent.

Opponents of the move worried that mixing school elections with municipal, county, state and national votes would bring politics into school board races. A report coming in December from the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission will detail spending in school board elections, which should give an indication of how political the races became.

But the move apparently increased the number of people who voted for school board members and the questions that were on several school ballots, even though not every voter made it to the bottom of the ballot.

An estimated 60 percent of the state's registered voters cast ballots last week, drawn by the top-of-the-ticket presidential contest. In some districts, only about half of those voters made choices in school elections, but that was still a much larger total than these elections usually draw.

Some observers are concerned that school elections can get lost amid the publicity surrounding the big races. And it is true that school board candidates or districts trying to sell spending measures will have to find a way to compete for voter attention with big-spending candidates for other offices.

But drawing attention to school elections has always been a challenge (hence the traditionally low turnout). At least now school board candidates don't have to worry as much about getting voters to the polls - and can concentrate instead on getting them to read the entire ballot.

 

NJ Spotlight - Department of Education Cheating Investigation Implicates Two More Schools…Report claims that improvements in test scores at Robert Treat Academy, a high-profile charter, defy all odds

By John Mooney, November 14, 2012 in Education|1 Comment

The state Department of Education’s year-long investigation into testing irregularities in a handful of public schools in 2010 and 2011 has leveled serious accusations against two more institutions, including a Newark charter founded by one of the state’s preeminent power brokers.

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Late yesterday the department released critical investigative reports of the Robert Treat Academy Charter School in Newark and the John Marshall Elementary School in Elizabeth.

Robert Treat was founded by Steve Adubato Sr., a longtime Democratic leader in the city’s North Ward.

The department has previously a released damning report of testing in Woodridge schools, and still more are expected.

But this release steps up the exposure. Adubato's school has been one of the darlings of New Jersey's charter school movement, enjoying two visits and plenty of praise from Gov. Chris Christie, among others.

Investigators cited testing and security breaches by administrators and teachers at both schools during the 2010 and 2011 cycles of the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK). The department claims that staff members coached students to correct wrong answers and allowed for security lapses with answer sheets.

The two schools reacted differently. A spokesman for the Elizabeth schools announced that two teachers and a guidance counselor had been suspended on Friday, with more serious tenure charges expected this week.

“I am disturbed by the findings and appreciate the State of New Jersey’s work in this matter,” said Elizabeth superintendent Pablo Munoz in a statement. “We will work to ensure the proper administration of state assessments.”

Meanwhile, Robert Treat’s principal at the time of the alleged incidents argued that the state’s claims weren’t valid, and there was no wrongdoing. Michael Pallante, the longstanding principal who retired last year, said last night that test proctors had employed a strategy for helping students that investigators misinterpreted as coaching.

Pallante said in an interview that the report's accusations are exaggerated. “They’re overstating things,” he claimed

The school released its own statement defending its practices: “The fact that Robert Treat students do well on the NJ ASK and other tests is a testament to the hard work of our students, our teaching staff and our parents.”

Nonetheless, it is a black eye for the charter, as well as for Elizabeth, a high-profile district in its own right.

State officials last night added nothing to the late afternoon release, saying they would let the reports speak for themselves. Christie’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Robert Treat has been among the high fliers in the state’s charter school movement, one of the original 13 approved under former Gov. Christie Whitman and making headlines ever since.

It has consistently posted well-above-average scores both in Newark’s mostly Hispanic North Ward and in the state itself -- some of the highest, in fact. In 2008, it won a national Blue Ribbon School award from the U.S. Department of Education.

Meanwhile, Adubato hasn’t been shy about promoting his school’s success and high test scores with billboards across the city. Operating out of his North Ward Center and its expansive social services programs, Adubato has for four decades been a colorful and powerful cheerleader for his ward and city, as well as for his political allies.

Ironically, it was those high scores that prompted state investigators to launch their probe, first announced 17 months ago, into more than 30 schools.

In each case, scanning analysis revealed that an inordinate number of student had erased wrong answers, changing them to correct ones. The state first asked the schools to look into the issue and then sent in their own investigators. Erasure analyses are now common in testing security.

In Robert Treat’s case, the inquiry focused on the 2011 sixth grade. Investigators interviewed more than a dozen staff members, as well as two students. (The report said that only two families agreed to allow their children to be interviewed.)

According to the report, investigators found that Pallante and other administrators, including Adubato’s daughter, Theresa, who was vice principal at the time, had allowed for lapses in the so-called chain of custody of answer booklets, opening up the possibility of tampering.

Among the most troublesome charges were that test proctors coached the sixth-grade students to use a process of elimination strategy in answering questions, and to actually fill in two answers that were closest to correct. The inference was that adults would then erase the incorrect one.

One teacher said there was a “standing joke among the teaching staff that [administrators] were going over the test booklets to make sure the students did well,” the report said.

Among the evidence gathered by the DOE were numbers of correct answers that did not make statistical sense, investigators said. Erasure rates were six or seven times the averages of other schools. Nine of 24 students got perfect scores on the math test. And the rate of improvement for students in the sixth grade over previous scores defied all odds.

“The odds of 64.0 percent of sixth-grade students having a higher MATH score in 2011 compared to their scores in 2009 [fourth grade] and 2010 [fifth grade is less than one out of one million,” the report said.

Pallante last night said there was nothing insidious about the strategy of having students eliminate the unlikeliest answers, and he denied that teachers went in and changed answers themselves.

“It was a strategy to help students who were unsure about their answers,” he said. “It’s just the department was searching, and they couldn’t find anything.

“If they are going to interpret that as a security breach, well, that’s their interpretation,” Pallante said. “They are making inferences that are unfair.”

Star Ledger - 6 N.J. educators breached security on standardized tests, report says

By Star-Ledger StaffThe Star-Ledger
on November 14, 2012 at 6:00 AM, updated November 14, 2012 at 6:41 AM

By Jessica Calefati and Jeanette Rundquist/The Star-Ledger

Six educators whose schools have been implicated in a statewide cheating probe committed security breaches on standardized tests in 2010, including providing students with answers or failing to properly safeguard test materials, according to the state Department of Education.

Three top administrators at the Robert Treat Academy in Newark, one of New Jersey’s most successful charter schools, failed to properly secure test materials for sixth graders who took the NJ-ASK test, according to an investigative report released Tuesday.

In a separate report, the state found that three educators at John Marshall School No. 20 in Elizabeth gave answers to third-graders taking the same test. The three have been suspended with pay, according to a statement by the school district.

The NJ-ASK test is a state proficiency exam given each spring to students in grades 3-8.

The developments come as the state continues to release results of its year-long probe of standardized testing that examined erasure marks on test booklets in an effort to uncover possible cheating. Five Woodbridge educators were named in similar findings in August.

The investigation at Robert Treat Academy focused on the 2010 sixth-grade, where all 50 students passed the math test — 86 percent of them received an advanced proficient score — but where wrong-to-right erasures were three times greater than the state average.

Investigators from the state Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance found that former Principal Michael Pallante, former Vice Principal Theresa Adubato, who is now principal, and language arts teacher Sarah Buttino, who served as the school’s testing coordinator, did not properly secure test materials and did not properly train staff members who had access to those materials.

According to the report, school officials said the high number of erasures could be attributed to a "multiple choice" test-taking strategy, where students select two answers, then erase one.

In a statement, Robert Treat officials said the school’s board of trustees will review the state report and "ensure testing security procedures are consistent with (Department of Education) regulations."

The school did not take any action against the three officials, according to a spokesman.

"The DOE review was as the result of an erasure analysis in one grade in 2010," the statement said. "A total of six grades took the test. The fact that Robert Treat students do well on the NJ-ASK and other tests is a testament to the hard work of our students, our teaching staff and our parents."

In Elizabeth, meanwhile, six educators at the John Marshall School have been implicated. Three of the six are no longer with the district, including former Principal Thelma Hurd, a 50-year veteran.

The other three — two teachers and a guidance counselor — have been suspended with pay and are expected to face tenure charges, district officials said.

The three gave answers to third-graders during testing in 2009-10, according to the state report.

Investigators found that Hurd threatened teachers with job loss or public humiliation if students didn’t succeed on the standardized tests. Teachers feared speaking to investigators on school property because of concerns about retaliation, the report said.

Also implicated were guidance counselor Nancy Yacabonis, the school testing coordinator, and teachers Barbara Bampoe-Parry, Christine Krzeminski, Debra Stallone and Sandra Sussman.

Don Goncalves, a spokesman for the district, said the school board is expected to take action on the matter tomorrow.

Reached by phone last night, Hurd said the school tested successfully for years, and "nothing could be further from the truth" that there was cheating.

"These investigators attempted to achieve the myth that in order for students of a minority race to succeed, they have to lie cheat and steal." she said. "This is an indictment against the students that they lack the capability to learn."


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