Several months ago, Madison Elementary School was at the head of the class among its peers in Davenport and in the state in improving reading and math skills for different groups of students.
Now, the school is at the center of cheating allegations after the district discovered irregularities in test results for third through fifth grades.
Davenport Community School District Superintendent Art Tate said Wednesday that although the district launched an “exhaustive” investigation in late February, the person or people involved have not been identified.
“What I know is that the tests were altered, they were tampered with,” Tate said. “They were tampered with to the benefit of the school for third-, fourth-, fifth-grade reading and math.”
The district emphasized that the students did nothing wrong and did not participate in altering the tests.
On Wednesday, Iowa Department of Education director Jason Glass sent a memo to Tate, saying Glass will review the materials from the district’s internal investigation. He also directed Tate to turn over those materials to the department by Wednesday.
Glass will then determine if an ethics complaint should be filed with the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners. Glass also notified Scott County Attorney Michael Walton for potential criminal prosecution.
Walton said Wednesday that he was aware of the allegation but said he has not received any information and has not been asked to investigate.
Department of Education spokeswoman Staci Hupp said testing oversight is typically handled at the district level. She added that she was unaware of any other schools or districts flagged for test score irregularities since Glass took over as director in 2011.
Madison Principal Sarah Gott could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
Tate said the district received a call in late February from the relative of a student, who claimed the student received help on the tests from a teacher.
Although the allegation was determined to be unsubstantiated, the district’s assessment coordinator discovered there was an “unusual pattern of erasures” on tests in a fourth-grade class, Tate said.
Tate said the district checked tests in third- and fifth-grades and found similar patterns. Officials also compared the Madison test documents with tests from elementary schools across the district. No irregularities at any other schools were discovered.
The district found that on average, Madison third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students had 7.36 erasures per student on the reading test. The average for all other elementary schools in the district was 1.25.
In reading score sheets for those three grades at Madison, 75 percent of the time, erasures were changed to the correct answer. A classroom sample in five classrooms in two similar schools showed an average erasure led to a correct answer 37 percent of the time.
The district also found erasure irregularities on math tests, although the alteration is not as pervasive in all grades, according to the findings.
Tate said the district then interviewed more than 30 Madison staff, including Gott, and recorded more than 20 hours of depositions.
Their search came up empty.
In November, Madison was one of five schools statewide that received the “Breaking Barriers” award, which recognizes schools that have closed the achievement gap for black third- through fifth-graders.
Between 2004 and 2011, the reading scores for Madison were, on average, 1 percent higher than the district score. During that time, Tate said, the school came in 2 percent below the district average to 4.6 percent above the average.
Tate said the slight fluctuation in the numbers was typical.
Last year, reading scores were 13 percent above the district average. Had the scores been submitted from this year, the school would have scored 26.6 percent above the district average, Tate said.
Tate said he has no evidence right now to suggest that tests were altered in the prior year, saying that those scores may have been elevated because of various school programs to work on reading.
That’s something that could be investigated further by the state, Tate said.
Tate said the tests at Madison typically are conducted in small groups with 24 proctors. The tests are then usually kept in the teacher’s room under lock and key before they are sent away to be scored.
Tate said the district will look at enforcing stricter policies regarding who controls tests and where completed tests will be kept. He also said all standardized tests taken in the district will be checked for any irregularities.
Tate said teachers and staff do not receive any monetary incentives or receive raises based on test results.
Tate said he met Wednesday with the staff, who he said were “very, very emotional” about how staff can talk to parents and students about the investigation.
Madison students will retake the test Monday and Tuesday. Tate said the new round of testing will help guide next year’s curriculum and will help students and parents know how they are doing academically.
The scores will not be counted by the state, however, which could put Madison on a “lower rung of the Adequate Yearly Progress ladder,” Tate said.
In his memo to Tate, Glass closed with words of encouragement.
“I know that you share my sense of outrage at this professional affront, and I wish to commend you for the expedience and transparency with which you have handled this very difficult situation for your organization and community,” Glass wrote. “Going forward, these values of expedience and transparency will be vitally important in working to hold the appropriate individuals accountable and to restoring the community’s faith in the public school system in Davenport.”
Sarah Campbell, mother of a Madison second-grader, said she has no intention of sending her daughter to school for the retest.
“It’s scary to the kids to know that some adult from the school administration is not trustworthy, and we probably won’t know who that is,” she said.
Amber Myer, mother of a Madison kindergartner, said she was surprised to hear the allegations.
“I don’t think it’s right for them to cheat,” she said. “It’s not a bad school. I just don’t understand why they would need to cheat because they have very smart students there.”
Tate said he hopes the community will respond by supporting the staff, students and parents as the investigation continues.
“Whoever did this did a dastardly act, a serious act,” he said. “But it’s one or two small groups, and we’ve got thousands of people who didn’t do it.”