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Investigators Confirm Test-Tampering At Hartford School

Ohanian Comment: the subhead reads No Suspects Named In Scandal At Betances.

Every time a scandal like this is uncovered I have the same reaction: profound sadness that people are made to feel that desperate. But I've posted terrible news about this school before, such as the principal's reaction to questions about kindergartners having time to play:

"Play? No. No, no, no," Betances Principal Immacula Didier said.

She insisted even preK has no time for play.

And here's where the pressure comes from:

Throughout her first year as superintendent, Kishimoto has repeated the pledge to business leaders and parents -- that today's nearly 1,800 kindergartners will read at grade level by the time they complete third grade.

Indeed. By hook or by crook. and the wrong people will be made to pay for making the test scores come out right.

By Kathleen Megan and Vanessa De La Torre

HARTFORD â An investigation has confirmed that dozens of Connecticut Mastery Tests taken earlier this year at Betances Early Reading Lab School in Hartford were tampered with by unknown individuals.

The investigation by the Hartford law firm of Siegel, O'Connor, O'Donnell & Beck concluded that "testing irregularities are present in the CMT reading content area test booklets, completed by third-grade students" at Betances.

"Changes were made to students' 2013 CMT reading content area test booklets by an individual or individuals that were not the students," the investigators state in a report for the Department of Education dated Nov. 5.

Based on information gathered during interviews and an analysis of abnormal erasure patterns, the investigators found that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that tampering occurred.

Figuring out who altered the tests and any discipline will be left to Hartford public schools, according to the report.

"Further investigation by Hartford Public Schools regarding any involvement in the identified testing irregularities ⦠may be required," the report says. The report also recommends that Hartford determine the "appropriateness" of "any potential discipline."

Superintendent Christina Kishimoto met with about 40 parents Wednesday afternoon to notify them of the report. "It was very important for me to have the parents hear first from the superintendent," Kishimoto said in an interview Wednesday evening. "... [T]his is a reflection of someone or some persons making a very poor and unethical decision."

Kishimoto called the tampering "really poor judgment that I want to really get to the bottom of."

For that reason, she said, she has asked the state Department of Education to release "all the data they have collected" on the case, "so that I can pursue my own internal investigation."

In a statement released earlier Wednesday, Kishimoto said, "It is distressing that no person has been identified as having altered the tests. A finding of wrongdoing without identifying any individual has a negative effect on students, families and staff. We are all left with unanswered questions."

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said the state was discussing what steps to take with Hartford school leaders regarding the cheating scandal.

"Testing irregularities are rare in our state. In general, Connecticut teachers, administrators and students display great integrity around the administration of statewide assessments," Pryor said in a statement released to the media late Wednesday afternoon.

"However, when such instances of possible tampering do occur, we take the matter very seriously," Pryor said. "Unfortunately, the investigators' report concludes that tampering has occurred in this case. We are in communication with Hartford's board and central office leadership regarding this matter."

As a result, Betances' scores for the 2012-13 school year will be considered invalid, a statement from Pryor's office said. Investigators also urged the school district to prohibit all staff at Betances from administering the 2014 CMT.

Kishimoto said the report is "based largely on a statistical analysis."

She said that although she has "concerns about the process and the report, we accept the findings. . . . Neither the board of education nor I tolerate adult interference with student tests."

The report contained many examples of teachers saying that students' scores were much higher than could be reasonably expected, as well as statistics showing that the number of answers changed from wrong to right was well beyond what might be expected.

For instance, one teacher, describing "Student D," noted that the student had "an extremely hard time recognizing words and comprehending text." She expected the student to score poorly on the test.

When the teacher was advised that the student changed answers 26 times and that 25 of those times were from the wrong answer to the right answer, the report says, "she could not believe it. Based on her experience with Student D, she did not feel it was possible."

In another case, a teacher said she did not think it was possible for "Student E" to change 22 of the 25 wrong answers to right answers. "Student E does not have the reading proficiency necessary to recognize that so many answers were wrong," the teacher said.

A footnote in the report says that in contrast to these teachers' opinions, Linda Liss-Bronstein, the literacy coach and dean of professional development at Betances, said "the number of erasure marks did not surprise her because she expected that the students would recognize their mistakes and correct them, therefore, she expected that there would be a great deal of erasure marks."

Students also said in interviews that they had not changed answers that were altered. For example, one student when shown his or her test booklet could not remember changing so many answers.

Another student, called "K," "emphatically stated" that he or she "did not make a change on many of the questions which had been changed from a wrong to a right answer."

K said, "When I filled in the bubbles, I made sure I always made the marking within the bubble." The report said that a great many of the changed answers on K's answer sheet "were sloppy and outside the bubbles." His teacher confirmed that "K" was "extremely meticulous."

The report also notes that on a lesser number of tests, answers were, inexplicably, changed from right to wrong.

The report cites statistical analyses done by Measurement Inc. and BlumShaprio that "support the conclusion that answers in student test booklets were changes as a result of outside intervention."

For instance, the two firms found that the total number of questions with wrong-to-right answer patterns in third-grade reading test booklets at Betances was 442; the Hartford school with the next highest total was 182.

The report does not address Betances' 2012 CMT scores. The school's highly touted results from that year are no longer listed in the state's online CMT database, which typically publishes school and district scores dating back to 2006.

Only 19 percent of Betances' Grade 3 test-takers achieved the state's reading goal in 2011. When Betances third-graders in 2012 took the mastery test, 74 percent scored at the goal level in reading.

Betances' reading gain on the 2012 mastery exam was an increase of 35.9 points on Hartford's Overall School Index, a metric system that rates city schools based on standardized test scores. It was, by far, the largest one-year OSI jump recorded by any city school, according to the district.

Betances teachers received up to a $2,500 performance bonus in September 2012 for the test scores, while Principal Immacula Didier received a $10,000 bonus from the district.

School officials at the time attributed the "outstanding" success to Betances' special approach to early literacy. Betances, a pre-kindergarten to Grade 3 neighborhood school, is the district's research hub for best practices in reading, and all classrooms are equipped with two video cameras so that teaching strategies are examined and shared with educators throughout the city, school administrators have said.

Betances was featured as a model school in a PBS "NewsHour" segment last month on the school's training of teachers to be effective literacy instructors.

During an interview with Liss-Bronstein, the PBS reporter notes that some might view the school's jump in test scores as "suspect."

Liss-Bronstein paused for a few seconds before answering, "I know. Well, but I know what we did. I know what we did. We worked intensively. We did small-group instruction with those children. We taught them the strategies they needed. And it worked."

Fox CT news anchor Laurie Perez contributed to this story.

— Kathleen Megan and Vanessa De La Torre
Hartford Courant





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