Testing Testing

Flanner House charter school to close amid cheating allegations

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Flanner House charter school closed in September in the wake of a cheating scandal.

An Indianapolis charter school that stunned the state with sky-high test scores in 2013 will close next month after state and city investigators concluded that the gains had come from cheating.

Flanner House School staff erased and changed some students’ answers on the state reading and math exams, wrote essay responses for students to copy into their own handwriting, and allowed them to practice in advance on real test questions, according to investigators from Mayor Greg Ballard’s office and the Indiana Department of Education.

The school’s governing board met Wednesday night and decided to close the 176-student school no later than Sept. 11. Had the board not voted to close the school, the mayor’s office was prepared to seek action to shutter it.

“I strongly support the Flanner House Elementary Board of Directors’ decision to relinquish its charter,” said John Mutz, chairman of the Indianapolis Charter School Board, which oversees mayor-sponsored charter schools. “We cannot tolerate academic dishonesty in any of our schools and should work together to support the students and families during this transition.”

A big  jump in scores, then a fall back to earth

Last year, Flanner House School made one of the biggest test score gains in the state when its ISTEP English and math passing rate jumped 42 points to 95 percent.

That put Flanner House — whose students almost all come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — in the top .01 percent statewide for the year. It outscored all but two schools in Carmel, for example, the state’s top-performing district where just 7.6 percent of students are considered poor.

Before 2013, Flanner House had never seen more than 65 percent of students pass the state exam. School leaders said at the time there had been no major changes in the student population, teaching staff, or school leadership.

Principal Latika Warthaw last year credited curriculum changes and better use of data for the big jump in scores.

“This year is when everything from the last two to three years of hard work finally shifted and came through in full force,” she told the Indianapolis Star when scores were released in 2013.

But this year’s scores, released earlier this month, showed that the school’s passing rate fell precipitously — down nearly 39 points to 56.5 percent passing.

Flanner House was back to the sort of passing rate that was more in line with its prior performance and ranked in the bottom 11 percent of schools in Indiana.

The investigations allege there was cheating both years, and the state plans to invalidate all student scores for 2013 and 2014. Flanner House will lose its “A” grade from the state for last year and its four-star school award, given for high passing rates.

Practice questions were on ISTEP

Investigation of the school’s improbable test score gain started in 2013, according to records of the mayor’s investigation. Ballard’s charter schools office raised concerns with state education officials, who asked the mayor to investigate. A report of that investigation states that the school did not have good procedures in place for assuring test security but does not document specific evidence of cheating.

Direct evidence of cheating came when ISTEP was administered again this March A member of the Flanner House staff alerted Ballard’s office of concerns that others at the school might have prepared students for ISTEP by letting them practice on actual test questions before taking the exam.

The allegation prompted a second investigation.

Students interviewed by investigators from Ballard’s office told them they knew some of the ISTEP questions from review sessions.

“For reading, some were new and some we had already done,” a third-grader said of ISTEP, according to the investigators’ report. “I remember reading the story about ants before. The questions were the same.”

A teacher who was interviewed described finding evidence students had prepped on an actual ISTEP essay question, called a “writing prompt.”

“On Wednesday, one of my students opened her book and pulled out a piece of scrap paper,” the teacher told investigators. “She said, ‘Is this supposed to be here?’ I looked closer and it was a handwritten copy of the (ISTEP) writing prompt that had been left in the book.”

Teachers and administrators found to have cheated on ISTEP can lose their teaching licenses. State officials have not yet said whether they will try to revoke licenses for any Flanner House staff.

Answers erased, handwriting changed

Ballard sponsors Flanner House and more than 30 other charter schools. As a sponsor, he allows schools to open — and can order them closed if they fail to keep their promises of improved academic performance. Ballard’s charter school office evaluates schools annually on a series of managerial, financial, and academic measurements.

Along with the mayor’s investigations, state officials followed with a review of the school’s test results.

Testing companies have developed techniques for identifying unusual patterns of answers that are erased and changed which can be used to identify possible cases of cheating. Those techniques have been used to identify widespread cheating in other cities, including Atlanta and Philadelphia.

The state conducted such a review while looking at Flanner House’s outsized 2013 gains. Investigators found that many wrong answers were erased and changed to right answers — more than would be expected if children checked their own work. That finding, plus the precision of pencil marks on the answer sheets and some of the handwriting on longer answers, suggested to investigators that adults made the changes.

“Nearly half the Flanner House teacher groups were flagged in an erasure analysis study as having students with unusually high number of changes from wrong answers to right answers on the multiple-choice portions of the spring 2013 ISTEP assessment,” state officials wrote to Ballard’s charter school director Brandon Brown in a memo on Monday.

Test scores not Flanner House’s only problem

The school opened in 2002, one of the first 10 Indiana charter schools to open that year. A separate Flanner House charter high school closed in 2005 for financial reasons.

The school has been under scrutiny from Ballard’s office since 2012, when it was placed on a performance improvement plan for managerial, financial, and academic reasons.

Ballard’s staff met with Flanner House school officials more than 50 times since the plan began and attended 10 of the school’s 14 board meetings over the two years. At only about half of those meetings were enough board members present to make official decisions for the school.

The school has also been losing students. It dropped to 176 enrolled this year, down from 230 in 2010. Because state funding is paid per student, that has had a financial impact on the school, which last week had to use a line of credit to make payroll.

Flanner House School shares a name with a community center that has served primarily Indianapolis’ black community since 1898 but is separately managed with its own board. The only relationship between the community center and the school is that of a landlord and tenant: The school pays rent and is house in a Flanner House building.

“It is important to note that despite their co-location, Flanner House Elementary School and Flanner House Inc. are separate and distinct organizations,” United Way CEO Ann Murtlow said in a statement. “Flanner House Inc. remains an important United Way of Central Indiana agency, and we stand in full support of their work.”

The school’s decision to close means its students will have to enroll at other charter schools or schools operated by the city. Parent meetings are expected before the end of the week.

Test tweaks

Tennessee will halve science and social studies tests for its youngest students

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Wednesday plans to slim down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders as she seeks to respond to complaints of over-testing in Tennessee.

McQueen has been mulling over that option since meeting last summer with her testing task force. The State Department of Education received more public feedback on testing during the last eight months while developing the state’s new plan for its schools in response to a new federal education law.

Tennessee already has eliminated a state test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as shortened TNReady, the state’s end-of-year tests for math and reading.

It’s uncertain just how significant the latest reductions are, since McQueen also said that some “components” would be added to English tests in those grades.  

And the trimming, while significant, falls short of a suggestion to eliminate the tests altogether. Federal law does not require tests in science and social studies for those grades, like it does for math and English.

Parents and educators have become increasingly vocal about the amount of testing students are undergoing. The average Tennessee third-grader, for instance, currently spends more than 11 hours taking end-of-course tests in math, English, social studies and science. That doesn’t include practice tests and screeners through the state’s 3-year-old intervention program.

McQueen noted that more changes could be on the horizon. Her testing task force has also considered eliminating or reducing TNReady for 11th-graders because they already are required to take the ACT college-entrance exam. “We will continue to evaluate all of our options for streamlining assessments in the coming years, including in the 11th grade,” she wrote in a blog post.

McQueen also announced that the state is tweaking its schools plan to reduce the role that chronic absenteeism will play in school evaluation scores.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to evaluate schools based off of a measure that’s not directly tied to test scores. Tennessee officials have selected chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent of school days for any reason, including absences or suspension. McQueen said the measure will be changed to count for 10 percent of a school’s final grade, down from 20 percent for K-8 schools and 15 percent for high schools.

Some local district officials had raised concerns that absenteeism was out of the control of schools.

early adopters

Here are the 25 districts committing to taking TNReady online this spring

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

One year after Tennessee’s first attempt at online testing fizzled, 25 out of 140 Tennessee school districts have signed up to try again.

About 130 districts were eligible to test online this year.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday the number is what she expected as districts prepare to administer the state’s TNReady assessment in April.

Although all districts will make the switch to online testing by 2019 for middle and high school students, they had the option to forge ahead this year with their oldest students.

The Department of Education is staggering its transition to online testing — a lesson learned last year when most of the state tried to do it all at once and the online platform buckled on the first day. As a result, the department fired its testing company, derailing the state’s assessment program, and later hired  Questar as its new test maker.

Districts piloted Questar’s online platform last fall, and had until Wednesday to decide whether to forge ahead with online testing for their high school students this spring or opt for paper-and-pencil tests.

McQueen announced the state’s new game plan for TNReady testing in January and said she is confident that the new platform will work.

While this year was optional for high schools, all high schools will participate in 2018. Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019, though districts will have the option of administering the test on paper to its youngest students.

Districts opting in this spring are:

  • Alvin C. York Institute
  • Bedford County
  • Bledsoe County
  • Blount County
  • Bristol City
  • Campbell County
  • Cannon County
  • Cheatham County
  • Clay County
  • Cocke County
  • Coffee County
  • Cumberland County
  • Grundy County
  • Hamilton County
  • Hancock County
  • Knox County
  • Jackson-Madison County
  • Moore County
  • Morgan County
  • Putnam County
  • Scott County
  • Sullivan County
  • Trousdale County
  • Washington County
  • Williamson County