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July 24, 2014

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State investigation finds cheating at Las Vegas elementary school

Updated Wednesday, April 16, 2014 | 5:40 p.m.

A state investigation into test score irregularities at a Las Vegas elementary school found that adults changed students' answer sheets but could not determine who was involved in the cheating scandal.

The Nevada Education Department today released its findings from a two-and-a-half year investigation into Matt Kelly Elementary School, located at 1900 N. J St. near Lake Mead and Martin Luther King boulevards.

The department found that Kelly administrators failed to follow proper test security procedures and investigate large swings in test scores. It also criticized the Clark County School District for "unsatisfactorily" investigating Kelly.

The department ultimately found that district and school officials violated district procedures and state laws governing student testing. However, it did not identify suspects by name in its 30-page report.

"I have no doubt that a testing irregularity occurred at this school, and that student answer sheets were altered by one or more adults in the system," Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction Dale Erquiaga said in a statement. "Testing security procedures were also breached.

"However, the investigation has not yielded the identity of the individual or group of individuals who changed the answers in 2012," he said.

However, three Clark County School District administrators have been suspended as a result of the investigation, according to Kirsten Searer, the district's chief of staff.

Associate Superintendent Andre Denson, Kelly Principal Pat Harris and Assistant Principal Steven Niemeier were "assigned to home" today, Searer said. They are on paid administrative leave indefinitely "while we review the report and decide what appropriate action needs to be taken," she said.

Meantime, the 2012 test scores at Kelly are permanently invalidated, and testing at the school will be administered by district administrators this spring.

"It is important that our community have faith in the validity of our standardized testing," Clark County Schools Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky said in a statement. "Once I have had a chance to review the department's full report and recommendations, I will take appropriate action so our students, parents and community can move forward."

•••

The Nevada Education Department began investigating Kelly after receiving an anonymous tip in April 2012. An adult at the school, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, filed a "report of testing irregularity," accusing Harris of improperly coaching students to change their answers on the Criterion Referenced Test earlier that year.

In response to the tip, the district sent Denson to investigate. At the time, Denson was an assistant superintendent overseeing the northeast region, which included Kelly.

During his investigation, Denson asked Harris if she had administered the standardized exam to any students and whether she told any pupil to change their answers. Harris answered no to both questions, and Denson closed his investigation.

District and state testing policies require schools to keep record of staff members who administer exams. The state education department found the principal was listed in the staff sign-in and sign-out sheets on testing day, indicating she administered the exam to some students. Denson failed to request this record, and the district failed to pursue a more rigorous investigation, according to the report.

•••

Several months after the School District closed its investigation into Kelly, officials received the 2012 test results, which showed dramatic increases in proficiency rates.

In 2011, just 37 percent of Kelly students were proficient in reading and 44 percent were proficient in math.

A year later, test scores showed that 82 percent of Kelly students were proficient in reading and 71 percent were proficient in math. Not only did Kelly's increases outpace the district average, six Kelly students received perfect scores on the exam.

In late August 2012, the district notified the education department of the huge test score increases and asked state officials to validate the scores. Months later, the department launched its own investigation into Kelly, conducting surveys and interviewing 29 employees.

However, the department's investigation "yielded inconclusive evidence," and was left idle. The department recommended that district administrators administer exams and monitor testing conditions the following year.

•••

The education department relaunched its investigation into Kelly when the 2013 test results came out, showing dramatic decreases in students' test scores.

The see-sawing test scores raised suspicions that the 2012 results "may have been compromised," the report said.

The department requested its testing vendor, Measured Progress, conduct an erasure detection analysis on the 2012 test results. This analysis scans bubble sheets to determine the percentage of incorrect answers that were changed to correct answers.

The analysis revealed a disproportionately high number of incorrect-to-correct erasures on the 2012 tests, a possible sign of cheating.

Nearly a third of answers on Kelly third grade reading tests were changed, and nearly a quarter of answers on third-grade math tests were altered. Clark County students on average switch their answers on about 3 percent of questions.

A second erasure analysis on 2013 tests found no anomalies.

The department wanted to complete this erasure analysis earlier, but couldn't, according to spokeswoman Judy Osgood.

It took time for the state to negotiate an amended contract with Measured Progress to complete the analysis, Osgood said. Furthermore, the state could not immediately come up with the $20,000 to pay for the analysis, she added.

This delay in getting the erasure analysis slowed the investigation, according to the department's report.

"It can be argued that the Department did not demonstrate a sufficient sense of urgency and does not readily possess the ability to be nimble in a situation of this scope," the report stated. "The current resources and structure of the Department are insufficient for investigations of this scope. The Superintendent must present a plan to rectify this situation."

•••

Four months after getting the results of the erasure analysis, the education department requested the state Attorney General's Office to conduct an investigation into the testing scandal at Kelly, which has now become public.

State officials subpoenaed seven Kelly employees and examined more than 2,000 pages of documents. Fingerprint analyses were completed on 20 suspect student answer sheets.

However, "despite an exhaustive investigation," the department could not determine the identities of those involved in the cheating scandal.

"The Department is left with evidence of the irregularity but no clear way to identify the perpetrator(s)," the report stated. "Either an individual or a group of individuals has lied under oath, or some undetermined and un-interviewed perpetrator of group of perpetrators exists. However in the interest of the students and families at Kelly ES, however, the Department can and must take appropriate action."

•••

The education department has left it up to Skorkowsky to determine if Kelly's principal and assistant principal will face disciplinary action.

The department's report presented a litany of issues with Kelly's leadership.

The department found that Harris created "a climate of fear," which hindered whistleblowing. The department also determined that Harris pressured at least one witness to change their statement to investigators, an allegation the principal denied in testimony.

Further, the department said Harris and Niemeier, who served as test coordinator for Kelly, failed to secure test booklets properly and allowed multiple adults access to them. They also failed to investigate testing irregularities, the report stated.

"The (Kelly) principal and assistant principal ... offered no plausible explanation for the situation other than asserting that 'our students tried hard' or pointing to a variety of instructional strategies employed in other schools where no such gains in student achievement have been seen," the report said. "Even when scores declined and reports of testing irregularity became public, the school-level administration took no action, except as directed by the District or Department."

Erquiaga said he will send "letters of admonition" regarding Harris and Niemeier's handling of student testing at Kelly. Their teaching licenses could be revoked, pending approval from the Nevada Board of Education.

•••

As Nevada moves toward a teacher evaluation system that ties teacher performance and eventually teacher pay with student test scores, the validity of student test scores becomes more imperative.

In March 2012, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found that Clark County was one of 200 school districts across the country that had a high concentration of suspect test scores after looking at patterns of test-score jumps.

In 2011, about 7 percent of all classes were flagged for suspicious test scores, according to the Atlanta paper, which investigated a massive testing scandal that led to the indictment of Atlanta's superintendent and more than 30 educators.

The Nevada Education Department's report did not find widespread cheating in Clark County schools, but raised concerns that the department cannot handle investigations into cheating allegations quickly and thoroughly without additional resources.

Today's report did not recommend any criminal charges against school officials, but will be submitted to the U.S. Education Department for review. The federal government may conduct its own investigation and issue its own corrective action against school officials.

Meanwhile, Erquiaga plans to share his findings on Kelly to state school board members tomorrow. He seemed eager to move past this investigation.

"It is time for the school, the district and the department to bring closure to the issue, restoring the focus on the students and the classroom," Erquiaga said in a statement. "The determinations I have issued today will serve to move the school forward."

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