Some students at Schalmont Middle School might be wishing they had opted out of the Common Core-based state math and English exams they recently spent hours completing.
The state test results of nearly 300 students at the school have been annulled after a state Education Department investigation found that students saw some test questions months before they took the tests.
“The district takes this matter very seriously, and I personally want to apologize to our students and entire community that this unfortunate incident has occurred,” said Superintendent Carol Pallas, who came to the district in January 2013. “Although these tests do not factor into students’ grades or promotion to the next grade level, our students, faculty and staff work very hard throughout the year in preparation for these exams.”
The scores of English and math exams for 147 students in grade six were invalidated, as were those of English exams for 150 students in grade eight. In those grade levels, 10 students chose not to take the exams that, for the second year, incorporated the more rigorous Common Core standards that have sent state test scores plummeting. Fifty-three students in grades five through eight chose not to take the exams.
The students whose test scores were invalidated will not need to retake the exams, Pallas said. “It is not a case of students cheating,” she said at a news conference Wednesday.
So what happened?
Students in grades five through eight at Schalmont were given a local assessment in the fall that used some questions from the 2013 state English and math exams, Pallas said. Those questions were “improperly retained” following the previous year’s testing, as they should have been returned or destroyed, she said.
Some of the questions were repeated in the 2014 state exams, which is why the state Education Department invalidated the results.
“They weren’t necessarily being used as a teaching tool on a daily basis, but were part of an assessment — a one-time assessment,” Pallas said.
Pallas said she did not know who was responsible for destroying or returning the 2013 state tests.
“There’s a whole process involved for doing that,” she said. “It’s safe to say that the process was not tight enough. It was not followed completely.”
“I suspect there was a miscommunication,” she added.
The state’s investigation will determine who was responsible and is expected to last about three weeks, the superintendent said. While the investigation is ongoing, state education officials confirmed in a May 14 letter to Pallas that students saw some questions in advance and said the results had been invalidated.
The state requires that the tests be returned or “retained securely for one year, then securely destroyed,” the letter states.
“If an investigation results in a final agency action against an educator or educators, certain information will be available,” said Jeanne Beattie, a state Education Department spokeswoman. “Until that time, we cannot comment further.”
Beattie said it is “not unprecedented” for state exam results to be invalidated because students saw questions that later showed up on exams, but could not say Wednesday how often it happens.
As for why questions are repeated from year to year, she said, “State exams always have embedded field test questions that may or may not be used on future exams.”
Pallas said students will not be forced to retake the tests because “there is no new test to give.” That was confirmed by Beattie.
“In a nutshell, yes,” she said. “The state tests are given once a year. There is an established makeup period for students who miss exams because of illness or another excused absence.”
Pallas said she first learned that students might have seen the repeat questions shortly before state testing began on April 1, after Schalmont Teachers Association President Mary Beth Flatley sent her a letter informing her of a rumor that “something was irregular with the test.” Following “an initial verification of facts,” Pallas said, the district filed an incident report with the state Education Department’s Division of Testing, and the department’s Test Security and Educator Integrity Unit launced the investigation.
Flatley, in a prepared statement, said the teachers union was “disappointed” that the state Education Department invalidated the test scores.
“We know how hard our middle-school students worked to prepare for these state tests,” she said. “Because the state’s inquiry is continuing, it would be inappropriate to discuss in detail what may or may not have occurred, other than to say teachers are cooperating fully.”
Pallas said she has met with state officials and the district’s testing administrators, and they are all working to ensure that the district’s testing procedures comply with state rules and regulations.
As part of the state’s corrective action plan, state officials are overseeing the administration of ongoing state science exams at Schalmont.
While the test results are not factored into students’ grades, teachers do use them to determine if students need further education support, Pallas said. The district will have access to the results, which have not yet been released, for such purposes.
Parents will also be able to see the results in person by submitting a request to their child’s school principal, Pallas said.
The annulled results could prevent the district from making adequate yearly progress (AYP), which could only affect state funding if the district didn’t make adequate yearly progress next year, the superintendent said.
“Regardless of the reason, if less than 95 percent of a school’s students take the math or ELA assessments, the school does not make AYP,” she said. “School officials are working with representatives from the state Education Department to determine what this will mean for Schalmont.”