BESE bends the rules for LEAP cheaters

by Heather Miller

A recent decision by the state's top school board lends a big helping hand to school performance scores in Calcasieu Parish, but at what cost to statewide accountability?

Prompted by a few highly publicized instances of widespread cheating on standardized tests in other parts of the country, the state Department of Education on Aug. 18 voluntarily offered up its own testing policies via a press release that outlines the state's safeguards against cheating on standardized tests.

But ironically, the same day the DOE communication department stepped up its PR efforts, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education took a vote that could set a vain precedent for districts trying to circumvent the state's tough sanctions for cheating on standardized tests.
The Aug. 18 BESE meeting agenda reveals that "testing irregularities" occurred at three high schools in Calcasieu Parish during the spring 2011 Graduation Exit Exam, one of three annual tests the state labels a "high-stakes" test. The exit exam, as well as the fourth and eighth grade LEAP tests, are considered high-stakes because students must pass them to advance a grade level or graduate from high school. The state's iLeap tests administered to third, fifth, sixth and seventh graders statewide measure student progress but do not determine whether a student can move on to the next grade level.

If any scores are obtained by cheating, which DOE defines as either administrative error, erasure analysis or plagiarism, the test scores are automatically voided and the scores are replaced by zeroes. Students are allowed to retest for high-stakes exams, but the state still places zeroes in the students' test scores when evaluating school performance every year.

BESE, on Aug. 18, was tasked with deciding whether to grant Calcasieu Parish a waiver on the voided scores and allow the school district to use the retest scores instead. Despite a recommendation from DOE to deny the waiver request, BESE voted to grant the waiver, says District 7 BESE member Dale Bayard, who represents Calcasieu and most of Southwest Louisiana, Lafayette included.

"This is by far the largest [cheating] issue we've ever dealt with," Bayard says.

The cheating in Calcasieu Parish was so widespread, Bayard says, that 600 students' test scores were voided, thus having a detrimental impact on overall performance scores in the district.

Bayard declined to give specifics on the cheating that occurred but says bad decisions by a handful of school administrators were to blame. The cheating was discovered thanks to one student who reported the irregularities to the district, resulting in retesting for the hundreds of students that cost Calcasieu Parish an additional $91,000. The school employees responsible for the testing irregularities have since been terminated, Bayard says.

"The crux of the consideration began because it affected 600 children, and it was due to a couple of culprits," Bayard explains. "The department admitted we needed to revisit the policy. To me it was a severe penalty for just a small number of people. I didn't expect it to pass; we had never done it before because waiver issues usually involve four or five children. Every district has to have the opportunity to be treated fairly when something like this happens."

Out of the tough vote BESE cast will eventually come a new policy to deal with the unprecedented number of students affected in Calcasieu Parish, Bayard says. But rumor has it that DOE was correct in its prediction that other school districts would request similar waivers for cheaters. DOE spokeswoman Rene Greer did not respond to questions about other waiver reqeuests by press time Tuesday morning, but sources close to BESE say calls have already started coming in regarding cheating waivers from other school districts, particularly from the DOE's Recovery School District, which oversees academically failed schools across the state.