Va. officials find testing irregularities in Alexandria adult ed program

April 3, 2012

Virginia education officials have discovered what they say are testing irregularities in Alexandria’s adult education program, threatening the program’s funds and creating another controversy for embattled Superintendent Morton Sherman.

One program employee has been placed on administrative leave by the school system. 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 state Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright.

In an interview Tuesday, Sherman said he and his staff are cooperating with investigators. The school system has also launched its own inquiry, and initial findings suggest that the irregularities can be attributed to “one or two people, or three people, making really bad decisions,” Sherman said.

“School systems have individuals who make wrong decisions, and superintendents take heat because, ultimately, they’re responsible for all that goes on in the schools,” he said. “I understand that and accept responsibility.”

News of the 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 (D) called for his resignation.

The adult education program relies on six state and federal grants totaling about $280,000, or one-fifth of its budget, according to a consultant’s report for the school board in July.

Some of those grants — including two from the federal government totaling $133,000 — require the program to abide by testing and data-reporting policies. Those funds are in jeopardy of being suspended or taken away, Wright said in her letter to Sherman.

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

An inexplicable number of adult students received the same score — 578 — on a basic skills test that is required to be administered by federal grant recipients. In one GED-preparation class, all 10 students received that score.

A test that measures speaking and comprehension — and 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.

That would have been virtually impossible, the state letter says. State officials said 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 95 tests.

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

Sherman said the school system believes that an employee created and administered an alternative exam not allowed under grant rules. He characterized it as a well-intentioned but wrongheaded move, made out of a sincere desire to create a better and more individualized test.

He said he will work with state officials to develop a new system for administering and reporting adult education exams, which are not subject to the same strict security procedures as standardized tests in elementary and secondary schools.

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.

Some students were reported to have attended many more hours. The program records show that a 90-year-old student taking English as a second language logged 96 hours in August and 93 in October, for example. Another student had more than 100 hours for two consecutive months, the records showed.

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

State officials began examining Alexandria’s program last fall, when Sherman announced a plan to revamp it. In October, he raised questions about the program’s effectiveness and temporarily froze its funds while a review could be completed.

The proposal outraged some community members who defended the program and said Sherman’s changes would focus too much on young high school dropouts, leaving older adults — and immigrants learning English — with fewer options.

State officials notified Sherman of their findings last week. He first responded in a statement Friday.

“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 the statement.

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