Meridian Public Charter School shrugs off D.C. investigation into test tampering

October 6, 2013

Six months ago, a consulting firm working for the D.C. schools superintendent reported that staffers at the Meridian Public Charter School had tampered with their students’ annual city tests, raising scores significantly above what they would have been. The school promised to take action, but last week Meridian’s board chairman, Christopher Siddall, told me the school’s subsequent investigation “found no evidence of test tampering.”

He declined to give details about what he called the school’s “extensive investigation.” He did not say what he found wrong with the D.C. report, the closest look ever at a D.C. charter school’s test security. He said security has been tightened, but it is hard to see how that can be if he can’t say what caused the obvious signs of tampering in the first place.

Parents still don’t know which staff members might have erased wrong answers and filled in right ones on the tests used to measure all D.C. public schools. It’s possible that people who changed test scores might still be teaching their children.

Widespread changes of wrong answers to right ones have been detected by test company officials in dozens of D.C. schools since 2008. D.C. officials have not only failed to fully explain it to parents, but they have acted in most instances as if it didn’t happen, as Meridian has done.

The investigation of Meridian’s apparent tampering with the 2012 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System exams was the first time that a probe of any D.C. school’s test security accepted the view of many scholars and veteran teachers that, when the number of wrong-to-right erasures per child is many times greater than the norm, some adults at the school likely have been cheating.

On April 12, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) released a report by the consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal revealing that 11 city schools, including Meridian, had such egregious test security violations in 2012 that many scores were thrown out. In the other schools, Alvarez and Marsal cited teachers and proctors who defined words and pointed out the right answers to students during exams. But at Meridian, the investigators said the sheer number of wrong-to-right erasures showed “strong circumstantial evidence” that the erasures “occurred at the school level and not at the classroom level.”

The school had about eight wrong-to-right erasures per child, while the average at other D.C. schools was less than one. It was the first time an official D.C. report said the erasures themselves violated the city’s rules.

It looked like OSSE, responsible for testing in the District, was finally going to let parents know who was responsible for tampering, at least in one case. Four Meridian administrators were questioned extensively. None offered any explanations, the report said. They said they stood behind their students’ scores and denied any wrongdoing. The school hired a law firm to determine who was responsible for the erasures, but they apparently didn’t find anyone responsible.

Most of the D.C. parents at schools with strong evidence of test tampering lack the means to hire their own lawyers and investigators. The same goes for Meridian parents, 87 percent of whom are low-income. They don’t know the identities of the four administrators who had no explanation for tampering going on right under their noses. They don’t know if any of those people still work at the school.

Meridian showed very high wrong-to-right erasure rates in 2009, 2010 and 2011, not just in 2012. Parents have been told nothing at all about erasure rates in 2013. Has failure to explain such deceptions become standard operating procedure? I hope not, but what has happened so far is not encouraging.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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