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Cheating suspected on biology state tests

By Cathy Hayden

A small number of students at three Mississippi high schools had to retake the state Biology I test required for graduation after their scores were invalidated for suspected cheating.

The schools are S.V. Marshall High and J.J. McClain High, both in Holmes County, and Moss Point High in Moss Point. Fewer than 10 students were involved at each school; only those students had to retake the exam given last spring.

J.J. McClain High is one of eight state "priority" schools because its test scores are among the lowest in the state.

In all, seven schools, including three in Holmes County, were cited by the state Department of Education for testing violations, such as coaching students or other issues that suggest possible cheating.

Some scores at six of the schools were invalidated. Therefore, they did not count in school accountability ratings unveiled last month.

For schools in general, there is no punishment for the violations, other than the embarrassment of being cited.

Francine Jefferson of Lexington, executive director of Citizens for a Quality Education, has been trying to let parents know about the testing violations.

"I don't see the school taking the leadership on letting them know. They dropped the ball. It's falling on the kids and the community," said Jefferson, who has nieces, nephews and cousins enrolled in the schools.

"The kids have told us that they were coached during the testing by the teachers. They gave them specific directions on who to sit next to while they were taking the tests."

Neither Superintendent Stephen Bailey nor Assistant Superintendent Powell Rucker could be reached for comment.

"We have to make sure we understand what all of that means," Holmes County School Board member Helen Johnson said of the testing violations.

State officials administered the test retake at S.V. Marshall High, said Susan Rucker, executive to the state superintendent of education. She and Powell Rucker are not related.

Although school districts no longer receive accountability levels, they do receive a rating of "accredited," "advised," "probation" or "withdrawn," usually meaning they have met broad standards such as enough books in the library and paperwork in good order.

The problems were so pervasive in the three Holmes County schools that the district's accreditation level was lowered from "accredited" to "advised," a step along the way to state oversight.

It's rare for state officials to lower a district's rating for testing violations alone, and it's unlikely the violations will lead to a state takeover.

The district is working on a corrective action plan that has to be approved by the state Board of Education. The district also will be more heavily monitored than is typical during all state tests this school year.

"Normally, if we had a district where there was no issue, we'll go once or twice a year. A district that has several issues, like Holmes County, we'll monitor more closely and more often," said Kris Kaase, director of student assessment in the Department of Education.

The Holmes County schools' violations were not self-reported by local educators, but all the others were, Kaase said.

"Some we identify through analyzing the test results," Kaase said.

At J.J. McClain High, students cooperated to cheat and a teacher also coached students on the state Biology I test, Kaase said.

At both J.J. McClain High and S.V. Marshall High, testing company officials flagged possible cheating through analyzing the numbers of erasures on test documents or the numbers of similar responses, he said.

Williams-Sullivan School either lost a third-grade test booklet or one was returned too damaged to be identified, Kaase said.

Luther Branson Elementary in Madison County was cited for possible coaching.

In early elementary grades, students use a test booklet instead of a separate answer sheet. Because stray marks can cause problems with the documents that are computer scanned for scoring, teachers erase those marks.

In this situation, a counselor was concerned a teacher might have been changing answers. The district reported the incident to the Education Department.

Superintendent Mike Kent said the district should have done its own investigation before reporting it.

"I don't think there was a violation," he said. "We thought it was awfully minor. ... We suggested that if the state had any issues they should not count the test, and instead we get a dadgum violation, which irritated me to no end."


Schools sanctioned for testing violations:

# Enterprise Elementary, inappropriate coaching of students.

# J.J. McClain High, Holmes County, inappropriate coaching of students and suspicious multiple erasures on test sheets or a pattern of similar responses, considered markers of cheating.

# S.V. Marshall High, Holmes County, suspicious multiple erasures on test sheets or a pattern of similar responses, considered markers of

# Williams-Sullivan High, Holmes County, lapse in test

# Luther Branson Elementary, Madison County, inappropriate coaching of students.

# Moss Point High, suspicious multiple erasures on test sheets or a pattern of similar responses, considered markers of cheating, and showing students questions ahead of time.

# Pontotoc Junior HIgh, inappropriate accommodations for special education students.

Source: State Department of Education

— Cathy Hayden




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