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Cheating Alleged at Milwaukee School

Palmer Elementary School's principal and two teachers won't be at their jobs Monday, as Milwaukee Public Schools officials investigate allegations that staff at the school gave students answers to standardized tests.

An anonymous tipster claimed that staff gave students answers to questions on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination and TerraNova test, both taken in November. The tipster also said staff photocopied test booklets and allowed students to practice the tests at school and at home.

On Friday, MPS officials questioned the principal and staff at the school, located at 1900 N. 1st St., in the Brewers Hill neighborhood.

Later, at a hastily scheduled Friday evening news conference, Superintendent William Andrekopoulos said that substitutes would be filling in for the two teachers and principal Deborah Bent on Monday.

He declined to name the teachers, or comment on possible discipline, stressing that the investigation is still ongoing.

Although MPS administrators would not speculate on possible motives, the allegations come at a time when pressure is building on schools to perform well on standardized tests - both in Milwaukee and nationwide. President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires schools to show measurable improvement on test scores or face an escalating list of sanctions.

For the past two years, for instance, families have been able to request transfers from schools on a list of those "identified for improvement" because of low test scores.

"The students were the ones that were cheated" if all the allegations turn out to be true, Andrekopoulos said Friday. He added that MPS officials are in the process of contacting parents at Palmer.

He said evidence suggests the students would not have been at fault for the cheating.

Based on the allegations, it appears Palmer staff "had students memorize the sequence of answers" on a multiple-choice section, Andrekopoulos added.

Monthlong investigation
The tip came into the state's Department of Public Instruction about a month ago. MPS officials have been investigating - with the assistance of state officials - since then, said Deborah Lindsey, the director of research and assessment for the district. They questioned staff at the school for the first time Friday.

Andrekopoulos said Bent's reaction to the allegations was "one of surprise." Bent did not return calls to her home seeking comment Friday evening.

The Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination is a statewide test given to fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders. The TerraNova is a test used by MPS. Both are designed by the publishing company CTB/McGraw-Hill.

After the tip, MPS officials asked CTB/McGraw-Hill to compare Palmer's November testing results with those of previous years. Although officials would not say Friday exactly how much the school's scores had improved, they said the change was eye-catching to analysts at CTB/McGraw-Hill - and possibly invalid.

The allegations involved students in the third, fourth and fifth grades, said Andrekopoulos. Lindsey added that two classes at each grade level were alleged to be involved.

Critics of the No Child Left Behind Act have warned that schools may feel pressure to cheat to avoid being classified as failing under the law.

In the last couple of years, several schools nationwide have had cheating scandals involving teachers.

Massachusetts is investigating whether cheating is the reason for Chandler Elementary Community School's sharply improved performance on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test.

In Tacoma, Wash., standardized test results for 13 children at Geiger Elementary School were tossed out in December because of concerns that teachers gave the special education students too much assistance on the test. In that case, officials said it appeared the infractions were inadvertent.

Caldwell Elementary School in Memphis, Tenn., was dogged by accusations last spring that its leaders excluded some students to improve results on state achievement tests - something the former principal has denied.

Low scores at Palmer
Palmer has suffered from low test scores. In 2000, only 23% of third-graders at the school were in the top two brackets on a standardized reading test and 32% drew the lowest ranking of "minimal." By comparison, 4% of students statewide were rated "minimal" that year.

Palmer's principal has been in the news before. In May 2002, Bent was cited as a principal who received low rankings from her teaching staff. In 1995, she was featured in an article about a large increase in reading scores at Granville Elementary School, where she was principal at the time. The scores had gone up 33.1 percentage points from the previous year, according to the article.

"You just never know," Bent told a reporter at the time. "Basically, we're just doing our job, working hard to make a difference in the lives of our children."

Nahal Toosi and Jamaal Abdul-Alim of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report

— Sarah Carr
MPS looks into claims staff helped on tests
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


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