Manassas Journal Messenger | Superintendent recommends firings

Richmond School Superintendent Deborah Jewell-Sherman has recommended dismissing some employees after a report released Tuesday from the Virginia Department of Education that details problems with state Standards of Learning testing at one Richmond elementary school.

In addition, Richmond has 30 days to submit a corrective action plan to the state.

Investigators interviewed 22 Oak Grove Elementary School staff members and reviewed dozens of testing documents, examining such things as “markings in test booklets that appeared to have been made by someone other than the students.”

The resulting 13-page report says a faculty member “reported pointing to students’ answers in the test booklet that were incorrect and pointing to correct responses.”

Jewell-Sherman would not say whom she plans to fire or even how many staff members might face dismissal.

Flanked by School Board members during a news conference at Oak Grove yesterday, the superintendent said she is “deeply disappointed in any individual who would choose not to follow the very explicit rules and regulations governing the SOL testing process here.”

The state began investigating Oak Grove after disclosures earlier this year that Principal Tommye Finley had instructed staff to provide an accommodation for the entire student body that is permitted only for certain special-education students and those with limited English proficiency.

Rules for administering the standardized tests are strict. At Oak Grove this spring, students were told to circle answers in a test booklet and that staff would fill in the corresponding answer sheets. That procedure is not allowed for most students.

When the booklets and answer sheets were compared, investigators found 524 discrepancies between the students’ answers and those the staff marked – 344 of the changes turned incorrect answers into correct ones. More than half of the changes occurred in two classrooms.

After thanking the state for its investigation, Jewell-Sherman said it was difficult to determine whether discrepancies were intentional or accidental but that she would be making “some hard and fast personnel decisions.”

She said the school district continues to stand by the vast majority of its staff.

“I believe initially it was a staff member who came forward, which speaks highly of individuals in our district,” she said.

According to the state’s report, Finley and the school’s assistant principal said the accommodation afforded to all students this year was also provided the year before, under a different principal. “Other faculty members stated that they were surprised and confused when they discovered … that a team would transcribe the answers.”

The report also offered other observations, including citing a single test booklet in which there were “seventy-six instances where an answer had been erased and the correct answer circled.”

Some of the answers correctly circled in the answer booklets did not reflect the student’s handwritten work, the report said. For instance, a student might work out a math problem in the test booklet but the answer circled was different from the student’s conclusion.

The report said the state will audit and monitor Oak Grove’s SOL testing for the coming year as well as the testing at randomly selected other Richmond schools. The state routinely monitors testing at a sample of schools around Virginia, said department spokesman Charles Pyle. “We’ll make sure that sample includes Richmond City Schools,” he said.

At yesterday’s news conference, Jewell-Sherman spoke with a sign behind her welcoming visitors to Oak Grove and proclaiming the school “Fully Accredited.” The state Department of Education will recommend to the Virginia Board of Education that it withhold the school’s accreditation.

“It’s a learning opportunity for us, and you better believe every other school district in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Jewell-Sherman said.

Lindsay Kastner is a staff writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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