By Diane Rado and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Chicago Tribune reporters
December 23, 2011
Educators forced out or disciplined by local districts over cheating and other state testing violations continued working in schools or administering state exams as their cases languished in Springfield without investigation, the Tribune has learned.
Contrary to Illinois law, state officials for years didn't investigate or pursue discipline of educators reported for testing misconduct — from excessive coaching to giving students answers to prepping them with actual test questions, a Tribune investigation found. Some may have been allowed to keep teaching even if the state had investigated, but in the meantime, educators were allowed to jump easily to new jobs while the state delayed.
Illinois State Board of Education officials say they were instead focused on higher-priority discipline cases because of limited resources, though lawmakers have given the agency $1.3 million since 2008-09 to pursue educator misconduct. Typically, they addressed violations by throwing out test results and letting local officials discipline educators.
But after the Tribune requested information about cheating incidents related to Illinois Standards Achievement Tests, the state board revealed it is now investigating 33 reports of testing misconduct dating to 2004-05.
Few details were released by the state, but many local districts provided the Tribune with their own investigations of cases now under scrutiny, opening a window into the high-stakes world of testing that has been blamed for cheating episodes.
Within days of learning about possible cheating on state tests in early 2008, Matteson School District 162 Superintendent Blondean Davis launched an investigation, finding that the principal and assistant principal at Park Forest's Illinois School allowed 12 students extra time to answer math questions well after exam day was over, district records show. Both administrators submitted resignations.
"We found that allegations of cheating were founded," Davis reported to the state board in March 2008. But in Springfield, the case lay dormant.
Illinois School Principal Mogda Walker went on to become principal at the now-closed Salem Christian Academy founded by the Rev. James Meeks, chairman of the state Senate Education Committee.
Her assistant principal, James Blaszczyk, got a job teaching middle school in Mannheim School District 83, based in Franklin Park, and has since moved to Schrum Memorial School in Calumet City, where he teaches science.
In Geneva, teacher Suzanne Grinnell kept her certification and went on to jobs in the Oswego, Kaneland and Schaumburg school districts and in Arizona, after she resigned following alleged testing violations in 2005 at Mill Creek Elementary School. Community Unit School District 304 reprimanded her for providing ISAT assistance to two special education students that "went far beyond what is permitted," records show, including "verbal prompting, encouraging students to re-evaluate their responses (and) leading students through a step-by-step analysis of the problem."
In Chicago Public Schools, teacher Tomorrah Howard resigned before a dismissal hearing as the district investigated cheating allegations on state exams at Daley Elementary Academy in March 2010. The district's investigation found that "credible evidence does exist to support the allegation that ... Howard passed a green Post-it note to (a student) containing the answer to math problem No. 74."
Howard denied the accusations, telling the Tribune that a union lawyer advised her to resign so she could walk away with a clean record. She said she's now working at a West Side charter school in CPS.
"How do you fight something like this? It's someone's word against yours. It's scary, so I decided to just walk away from the situation," Howard said.
The Illinois School's Walker told the Tribune she never admitted guilt but understood that she was at the helm and would be held accountable. She said she's now retired and has "put the entire situation behind me."
Likewise, Blaszczyk told the Tribune he has "moved on."
Grinnell said from Arizona, "I did nothing wrong." She said she told the district that she made "generic comments," such as, "Remember what we learned in class." But she disagreed with a "very inflammatory" reprimand letter of March 2005 and said she wrote a rebuttal. The Tribune requested the rebuttal, but the district said it had no such document.
Grinnell questioned why the case would be open after more than 61/2 years.
Revocation not mandatory
The state board said it refocused on 2009 and prior allegations of testing misconduct during its review of the Tribune's Aug. 5 public records request, and "formally opened misconduct investigations on the educators involved," according to a letter to the Illinois attorney general's office. That office is reviewing whether the state board should release more records about cheating.
The board told the Tribune that 2010 and 2011 incidents already were under review for possible educator discipline, though no certification action has been taken.
Violating the standards, ethics or rules related to security, administration, monitoring or scoring of state achievement exams is "unprofessional conduct" under state law, and grounds for revoking or suspending an educator's certificate. That action would block educators from working in public schools and some private schools that require certified staff.
Revocation or suspension isn't mandatory in cheating cases, and experts say such action has been uncommon nationwide until recently.
A widespread cheating scandal in Atlanta led to recent revocations of several educator certificates by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. Such decisions must be made based on the severity of each case, said Paul Shaw, director of the commission's ethics division. The state is trying to prevent educators disciplined locally from being able to move easily to other jobs, he said.
A clearinghouse of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification tracks adverse actions against educators, so state officials can check for suspensions and revocations before they let educators work in their states, Executive Director Roy Einreinhofer said.
If teachers are involved in cheating, his view is "that would call for revocation and suspension of at least some kind," Einreinhofer said. "It defeats the whole purpose of a high-stakes test if you've got teachers changing answers."
Under Illinois law, the state school superintendent must "further investigate" upon receiving evidence of unprofessional conduct, including state testing violations, and determine if discipline is appropriate. If discipline is pursued, a written notice must be sent so an educator can ask for a hearing. If no hearing is requested, the educator's certificate will be revoked or suspended.
Before mid-2009, the notice offering a hearing had to be sent out "upon receipt of evidence" — the law didn't include language requiring further investigation.
With no money to hold hearings, the state took "a very narrow view of what constituted sufficient evidence," said state board spokeswoman Mary Fergus. The agency didn't send out any notices related to testing misconduct between at least 2004 and 2009, and one notice has been sent in connection with 2010 and 2011 cases, which are still being reviewed.
"There is no statute of limitations governing this review, and we believe that we are still upholding the law by giving these potential cheating cases another look now that we have the funds to do so," Fergus said.
The disciplinary cases aren't easy, said Darren Reisberg, general counsel at the Illinois State Board of Education.
"The problem is that you have to make a determination internally that you will have a sufficient enough case to be able to win before a hearing officer in a pretty significant trial," he said.
Local districts submit their cheating investigations to the state, often including interviews of students and staff and sometimes admissions from educators, records show. But Reisberg said those documents "would not satisfy a hearing officer in terms of rules of evidence. We would have to re-create that case. Kids would have to be testifying and be the subject of cross-examination."
State versus local
The last certification action related to testing misconduct was in 2004, when the state found a west-central Illinois educator distributed copies of an 11th-grade state exam to faculty early to improve students' test scores, records show. His secondary certificate was suspended for five years, but his grade school certificate was suspended for just five months. He began teaching elementary school in the same North Greene district the next year.
Since then, local officials have been on their own in dealing with educator discipline in testing cases.
In Paw Paw school district, west of the Chicago region, Superintendent Robert Priest was surprised when he called the state in 2009 about a teacher who resigned after his district's investigation into alleged testing violations at Paw Paw Elementary School.
"I asked, 'What about any punitive action on the state's part for the teacher?' They said, 'That's not in our area. It's really up to the district to do it, and if you want to take punitive action, that is your prerogative,'" Priest recalled.
"I think it should be the state's responsibility to take punitive action," Priest told the Tribune.
Records show that the teacher who resigned, Sue Beckstrom, denied allegations of reviewing students' writing exams, making suggestions to them and writing in their test booklets. She could not be reached for comment.
In East Aurora School District 131, Tricia Rowland-Walton made headlines when she resigned as principal at Krug Elementary School in 2008. Through student and staff interviews, the district said it confirmed violations of ISAT "test misadministration or cheating," records show.
"One staff member witnessed the principal coaching students … and six other staff members shared that some of their students indicated she had coached them…," the investigation stated. Rowland-Walton denied coaching students.
"She was accused falsely, so she chose to resign for the benefit of the school," said her lawyer, Jeralyn Baran.
But Rowland-Walton maintained her certificates in Illinois, records show, and is certified in neighboring Indiana, where she works at a charter school.
In Chicago in 2006, award-winning science teacher Carolyn Maragh was accused of getting access to state assessment test questions before test day and administering a practice test for her Alcott Elementary seventh-graders. CPS determined there was "credible evidence" that the practice test bore identical information to the actual science exam, according to district records.
The Golden Apple finalist told the Tribune she didn't open the tests early. She said some of her students created the practice test from "accumulated testing materials that she laid out on a table," records show, but students interviewed by the district said they weren't asked to compile a practice test. She resigned before a dismissal hearing.
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said the district looks closely at any reports of cheating.
"All board employees that are caught cheating will be and have been swiftly disciplined," Carroll said.
In a teacher dismissal case at Chicago's Robinson Elementary School, a state hearing officer in October concluded there was insufficient evidence that a teacher had cheated. "The evidence was laughable," said one of the teacher's attorneys, John DeRose.
However, the hearing officer said there was "credible evidence" that two other people — Principal Jacqueline Wilson-Thomas and Jack Silver, a teacher who served as ISAT coordinator — tried to convince two teachers that teaching concepts using the actual ISAT test had been authorized by the district's central office, according to state records.
During the hearing, Silver said he had called CPS' central office and was told he could open the seal on the state exams so teachers could teach material they hadn't covered yet, according to testimony. CPS maintained that testing specialists at the central office "had no knowledge" of anyone there speaking to Robinson officials.
Wilson-Thomas maintains there's no truth to the allegations.
"I was forced to resign," Wilson-Thomas said. "This is just a very unfortunate matter that involved a lot of hearsay and was personally motivated."
Silver retired, according to state records. He could not be reached for comment.
Elsewhere, districts including Keeneyville District 20 in DuPage and Wauconda District 118 in Lake County declined to release records of their testing-irregularity investigations, citing exemptions from public records law.
In Matteson 162, Superintendent Davis took the opposite approach, calling an emotional meeting of 400 parents and inviting the media when the alleged cheating episode broke in 2008.
"I felt to remove a principal and an assistant principal was something I needed to communicate directly to the parents," Davis told the Tribune.
"If you're going to suspend a child for cheating, then certainly you should hold adults to a higher standard."
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