Alexandria adult education program under investigation

Virginia education officials have discovered testing irregularities in Alexandria’s adult education program, threatening the program’s funding and serving up another controversy for embattled Superintendent Morton Sherman.

One employee has been placed on administrative leave. Now state officials are planning to conduct a more intensive review, visiting Alexandria to examine five years’ worth of financial documents and student records, according to a letter sent to Sherman on Monday by Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright.

Sherman first acknowledged the investigation in a statement Friday. In a subsequent statement released Monday, he said he and his staff are cooperating fully with the investigation.

“I take full responsibility for ensuring that the Adult Education program will continue, that pending the outcome of this investigation severe disciplinary action will take place, and that we will continue our review of all departments,” he said.

Alexandria relies on state and federal grants to run its adult education program, which enrolls more than 400 students. The school system has to abide by testing and data-reporting policies in order to qualify for the money.

In a memo last week, state officials outlined the inconsistencies they found, saying they “suggest serious flaws” with Alexandria’s program.


Alexandria Schools Superintendent Morton Sherman with students at Jefferson-Houston K-8 School. (Christy Goodman)

An inexplicable number of adult students received the same score — 578 — on a test that the federal government requires of its grant recipients. In one GED-preparation class, all 10 students received that score.

Another test — which is administered one-on-one and takes between 20 and 30 minutes per student — was supposedly taken by 95 students in a single day in July 2011.

But that is virtually impossible. State officials pointed out that Alexandria has only one instructor certified to give the exam — and that it would take that person three full days (eight hours a day, with 15 minutes for lunch) to administer all 95 tests.

“It is hard to fathom how so many tests could have been administered in one day,” the state’s memo said.

It’s not clear whether Alexandria misreported data or simply failed to give the required tests.

State officials also questioned Alexandria’s attendance records. An unusually high number of students, they said, logged at least one month with more than 80 attendance hours — or four hours a day, five days a week, for the entire month.

“In one case, a 90-year old ESL student had 96 hours in August and 93 hours in October. Another student had more than 100 hours in October and November, which meant that she attended classes for at least five hours a day, every day, Monday through Friday, in October and November,” the state memo said.

“While having dedicated students is not unheard of, the hours reported in some cases seem unusually high, which raises the question of whether the process for documenting attendance is reliable.”

News of this investigation comes just weeks after an independent audit concluded that the Alexandria school system’s management of its capital improvement program was rife with dysfunction, leading to millions of dollars in unpaid bills, among other problems.

The school board stood behind Sherman during that episode, even as Vice Mayor Kerry Donley called for his resignation.

Sherman has been planning since last fall to revamp the adult education program, refocusing resources on young high school dropouts. That has triggered outrage from community members who say the changes will leave older adults and immigrants learning English with fewer options.

“Now is the right time to restructure this program with licensed, experienced staff to ensure proper management, reporting, and instruction is taking place for the sake of our students,” Sherman said in a statement.

Emma Brown writes about national education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.

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