The state has thrown out the test scores of a top-performing Los Angeles school and of the highest-scoring campus in the nationally known Green Dot charter group after cheating was uncovered involving several teachers.
Short Avenue Elementary in Del Rey and Animo Leadership Charter High School in Inglewood were barred from receiving academic rankings released last week by the California Department of Education. That action deprived the schools of the state rating that has become the key figure used by parents and officials to judge campuses in California.
At Short, three teachers are accused of changing answers or coaching students to the correct answers or both. At Animo Leadership, a science teacher is accused of fixing wrong answers.
L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy characterized the Short Avenue teachers' actions as gross misconduct.
"Students take tests independent and alone," Deasy said. "We don't coach them and give them answers." He added, "It's obviously wrong behavior, but it's more than that.... It's not the behavior we want to model — ever."
When the improprieties came to light, the Los Angeles Unified School District and Green Dot conducted internal investigations and notified the state Education Department. As a result, each school was struck from this year's Academic Performance Index, the rating used to measure the progress of schools in California.
Cheating scandals have received increasing attention nationwide. In the Atlanta school system, 82 educators have admitted cheating, with misconduct documented at 44 of 100 schools. In Washington, D.C., concerns have risen about cheating in response to the high-stakes improvement mandates of former Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
Locally, at six charter schools operated by Crescendo, principals were ordered last year to require teachers to review the state tests in advance and then use that material to prepare students. L.A. Unified recently closed those schools in the aftermath of the scandal.
Such episodes underscore the pressures and pitfalls of testing systems that, nationwide, increasingly affect teacher and principal evaluations and whether schools achieve acclaim or censure and penalties.
At Short Avenue, a third-grade teacher identified as Teacher C had "average erasures per student of 10 to 21," and most were changed from wrong to right, according to a summary of a district internal investigation. One student acknowledged she'd left math questions unanswered because they were "too hard," the report stated. But correct answers appeared in the booklet.
"In the principal's office, she was unable to perform a basic addition/subtraction problem," the report said. "Most students were advised by the teacher as to which questions were incorrect, and then the teacher instructed students to return to their seat to correct their answers."
The probe began when a parent raised concerns about a second-grade teacher accused of reviewing questions on the standardized tests after students had finished with them for the day. Students use different portions of the same multiple-choice booklets for the tests.
Students "admitted that they went back the next day and changed their incorrect answer to the correct one as a result of the previous day's review," L.A. Unified stated in its report to the state.
Another third-grade teacher, identified as Teacher B, "had numerous erasures (207) as well, with the majority of all erasures changed to the correct answer."
This teacher also "walked around the classroom and pointed to incorrect answer[s] in test booklet and told students to go back and check that particular problem." The teacher helped students decide which mathematical operation to use and wrote helpful notes on their scratch paper.
The students of that teacher said they didn't consider the assistance cheating because the instructor didn't directly indicate the right answer.
L.A. Unified did not provide requested information about Short Avenue. Details were instead obtained through a public records request from the state.
Deasy said he planned to launch a deeper investigation, including into whether scores from past years are legitimate. Short Avenue had until now been a success story, with a mix of students that substantially reflects the district at large. About two-thirds are low-income and about two-thirds are Latino. Other ethnicities include white (11%), black (9.4%) and Asian (8%.) Last year, the school's performance index ranking was 848, well above the state target of 800.
At Animo Leadership, students alerted adults of possible cheating.
When students received their booklets to resume testing, at least two 11th-graders noticed that their answers to the physics test appeared to have been changed since the previous day, said Marco Petruzzi, Green Dot's chief executive.
The teacher proctoring the tests immediately alerted administrators. Green Dot notified its board, the state and school district officials.
State records indicate that a staff member is suspected of "accessing 11th-grade answer documents and altering answers" on the physics exam, said John Boivin, administrator for the testing office at the California Department of Education. As many as 148 students out of 604 could have been affected.
Petruzzi said a thorough investigation found no widespread evidence of wrongdoing. He said pending disciplinary action prevented him from providing more details.
Educators guilty of cheating face dismissal and possibly the loss of credentials that allow them to work in public education. L.A. Unified and Green Dot have not released the names of the implicated teachers.
Green Dot Public Schools runs 18 charter campuses, including at Locke High in South L.A. and a campus in New York City. Charters are publicly funded, independently run schools.
With a valid score, Animo Leadership would have approached an 800 API, which high schools serving large numbers of low-income minority students struggle to attain. The school, which was the founding Green Dot campus, has been named among the top 100 public high schools by U.S. News & World Report.
"It would have been our highest-scoring school," Petruzzi said. "That's why I'm so disappointed."
Neither Deasy nor Petruzzi made excuses regarding the increasing pressure that teachers face to deliver ever-better test scores.
"You cannot always avoid students or adults cheating," Petruzzi said. "What is important is how the institutions or corporations or organizations react. It is not tolerated here."