SUNDAY EDITION | Cheating allegations swirl around Louisville Ma - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION | Cheating allegations swirl around Louisville Male High School

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Eight seniors at Louisville Male High School say they were helped by a school official – or witnessed the official helping their peers – on a standardized test that measures whether students are ready for college.

And three of the students say Male Principal David Mike told them not to tell investigators about being helped on the ACT Compass test, which schools can use to show that students are “college ready.”

The students’ claims could be leading to a new turn in investigations of Male’s testing practices by the ACT organization and the Kentucky Department of Education.

On May 7, investigators from both the state and ACT showed up to Male unannounced to talk to students and faculty, after having conducted an initial round of interviews in December, WDRB has learned.

The state education department has been looking into test administration issues at Male since late November or early December, and spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said the inquiry is still pending.

ACT began investigating Male around the same time – conducting joint interviews alongside the state. An ACT spokesman said the organization does not talk about investigations.

In February, ACT outlined a number of shoddy practices that tainted the results of Compass tests given at Male last fall, according to a five-page letter obtained in an open records request. Those results were declared "invalid" and the school asked students to retake the tests this spring.

Compass is a computer test that high schools can use to boost their percentage of “college and career ready” students for state accountability purposes. Students who don’t get certain minimum scores in reading, English or math on the traditional ACT can take the Compass test to certify their knowledge in each subject.

In its February letter, ACT said Male used an unauthorized version of the test to allow students to “practice” before taking a different version of the test in which the results were reported to the Kentucky Department of Education.

ACT found that students taking the supposed “practice” version of the test were “assisted” by teachers and fellow students, but the letter does not say the assistance extended to the version of the test that produced recorded scores.

Despite how Male was using the unauthorized version of the test, ACT spokesman Ed Colby said there is no “practice” version of the Compass – only the same test administered on two different platforms, one on computer software and another through the Internet.

Male staff encouraged students to take the “practice” test “multiple” times before completing the test with recorded results, according to ACT’s investigation. Students were allowed to copy test questions from the “practice” test and get the answers from teachers.

The ACT letter does not say whether the same questions appeared on both versions of the test, and the ACT spokesman declined to clarify.

ACT required Male to do eight things to be able to give the assessments again, including telling staff members in writing that they “may not assist students with responding to test questions” and putting up flyers in prominent locations around the school warning against cheating. “Cheating hurts everyone. If you see it – report it!” one ACT poster says.

The students claim they were helped, or witnessed their peers being helped, on the version of the test that produced recorded results. In fact, some told WDRB it’s the only reason they passed.

Lauren Schanz, a 17-year-old senior, said she’s always been “terrible at math,” and were it not for the help she received from the school official on some of the problems, she would have failed the Compass test last fall.

“I was happy to pass the test because I didn’t feel like I could do it on my own, but, like, at the same time, I felt kind of guilty… I was getting this recognition for being ‘college and career ready’ when really, I’m probably not ready for math in college,” Lauren said.

Lauren is also one of three students who told WDRB that Mike asked her not to talk about the assistance before she spoke to investigators in December.

She remembers Mike pulling her out of class one day to speak to her privately.

“He said, ‘the board (of education) is going to ask you a few questions. Remember that this is Louisville Male High School. We are one of the best schools in the state and anything bad that is said in this interview could be used against us, and just make sure that you only say good things and that you make me look good,’” Lauren claims Mike told her.

Students write statements about test

Mike declined to comment on the allegations made by Lauren and the other students in an interview after Male’s Site-Based Decision Making Council met on May 9. WDRB had broadly outlined the students’ claims in an email to Mike a day earlier.

When a reporter began asking Mike about the allegations, he quickly cut off the discussion: “That’s ongoing – you’d have to see Ben,” Mike said, referring questions to JCPS spokesman Ben Jackey.

Jackey said the school system is awaiting the conclusion of the state investigation before determining whether any of the students’ claims have merit.

“We don’t know about the credibility of the allegations; that’s why they need to be investigated and (the Kentucky Department of Education) is the entity that’s investigating it,” Jackey said.

He also said ACT's February letter shows that Male officials helped students only on "practice" Compass tests and not real ones.

The exact focus of the state’s investigation is unclear. Rodriguez declined to provide any information while the case is pending.

Lauren is among ten Male seniors who wrote and signed statements earlier this month about their experiences with the Compass test. WDRB obtained the statements from a Male official who declined to be identified. Reached independently by WDRB, all of the students confirmed they wrote the letters, with nine providing more details in interviews. One said she wasn't comfortable talking to a reporter.

Eight of the students say they received help or witnessed others receiving help from the school official during the actual test, according to a combination of their letters and interviews with WDRB. (One student says he was helped during the test by a peer, while another claims only that noise interfered with her concentration during the test.)

The Male official who gave the written student statements to WDRB says they were also given to investigators on May 7, which WDRB has confirmed independently.

Last week, the mother of a Male senior gave WDRB an April 17 letter her daughter wrote anonymously to JCPS detailing the same allegations the other students made, including that two of the senior's friends were pressured by Mike not tell investigators the whole truth about the Compass test. The mother asked that her and her daughter's name not be disclosed for fear of jeopardizing her employment.

Paige Hartstern, JCPS’ assistant superintendent overseeing Male, confirmed she received the senior's letter and that JCPS sent it to the Kentucky Department of Education “for investigation.”

While the students named the school official who helped them on the Compass tests in their statements and interviews, WDRB is not identifying the person at this time.

Neither the official in question nor Mike have any recent disciplinary actions in their district personnel files, Jackey said.

The school official has not responded to phone messages, but is aware of the nature of the students’ claims. The official received a message from WDRB broadly outlining the allegations on May 9 and then forwarded it to Jackey.

The focus of ACT's investigation is to ensure the integrity of its assessments rather than disciplining specific people, and the organization did not name any school personnel in its February findings. ACT ordered Mike to provide a list of “the individuals responsible for organizing and overseeing” the Compass testing so that those people would not be allowed to handle ACT products again without written permission from ACT.

Mike’s response to ACT was not included in WDRB’s open records request. However, Mike said in a March 4 email that the school official in question would not be involved in ACT testing “from this point forward.”

‘A lot of people could get in big trouble’

Tyler Lankswert, an 18-year-old Male senior, said he also was coached by Mike before speaking to ACT and state investigators.

“He basically said, ‘Don’t tell them that you had help on it,’” Lankswert said, adding that he did as the principal instructed.

Another senior, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalled a conversation she had with Mike as he escorted her to the interview with investigators.

“He came and pulled me out of my class and was walking me down to the room where the interviewers were and was asking about it – like, the test, and if I had been helped. I told him, yeah, I had been helped; I'm not going to lie to you,” the student told WDRB.

“And he was like, ‘OK, well, I think it would be in everyone’s best interest if you didn’t let the people know that that happened because a lot of people could get in big trouble for this.’ And I didn’t want to be the one kid to, like, tell the truth and get everyone in trouble, so I was like, ‘Well, all right. I don’t want to be that one tattle-tale.’”

The student who asked not to be named and Lankswert said they told investigators the truth about their original interviews in a follow-up conversation at the school on May 7.

Lauren, who was absent from school the day investigators returned, said she defied Mike’s overt suggestion and told the whole story when she was interviewed back in December.

Lauren said she knew what Mike had asked her to do was wrong and she “didn’t want any part of that.”

Discontent at Male

All this information is surfacing at a time when, as Jackey acknowledged, “a wave of discontent” has come over Male – one of the state’s top-performing high schools.

Mike came to Male this academic year from Western High School, where he had been principal for five years.

Several students, parents and others connected to the school are angry with Mike for designating a handful of teachers, counselors and an assistant principal as “overstaffed” employees – a move that places the employee on the list to transfer to another school.

Every year, principals can select employees to be involuntarily transferred based on their school’s projected needs the following year, Jackey said. The process can often alarm students and parents if they perceive longtime or valued employees being pushed out.

Nine Male employees – six teachers, one assistant principal and two counselors – have been designated as “overstaff,” according to a list JCPS provided in an open records request.

The employees are teachers David Dudley, Scott Lawrence, Jacinto Padron, Joshua Poore, Kevin Schulz and Jill Wight. Also on the overstaff list: assistant principal Todd Barber and counselors Jill Crutcher and Cynthia Sullivan.

In the interview on May 9, Mike said only about six employees are being “overstaffed,” and a few may end up staying at Male as the school gets a better idea of how many students it will have next year.

Several of the students acknowledged that Mike’s staffing decisions motivated them to come forward about the Compass test.

“With the whole situation going on now with Mr. Mike, all the teachers and all the problems, I feel like it (the Compass test investigation) wasn’t addressed the proper way the first time,” Aspin Gray, a 17-year-old senior, said in an interview.

Real and "practice" tests mixed in same room

Part of the difficulty in verifying the students’ claims about being helped on the Compass test is that supposed “practice” tests and the tests that actually counted were given in the same room simultaneously.

As Lauren said, “Everyone was talking in the room; you couldn’t even tell which people were taking the real test.”

ACT put an end to that when it demanded that Male uninstall the unauthorized copies of its software.

But other students, such as Aspin, said “real” test takers and “practice” takers were separated, even though the school official walked around offering help regardless of the nature of the test.

Ben Potts, 18, wrote that the official walked “from computer to computer telling students the answers” when he first took the Compass exam in October or November.

The official “would lean over the student and say, ‘This is the right answer’ -- without really showing them the process,” Potts said in an interview.

Aspin wrote that, while doing a practice version of the Compass test, she saw the official helping a student through a “real” test by working out problems on a sheet of paper and showing him what to put into a calculator.

Jackson Hallahan, 17, said the official told him and other students taking the “real” Compass exam to speak up if they needed any help.

“I said no, but a couple of kids next to me were actually – (they) had a paper out and (the official) was doing the problem for them and pointing to the answer,” he said in an interview.

Jackson’s mother, Stacey Hallahan, said it was only in the last few weeks – when Jackson decided to write the letter – that he told her about his recollection about the Compass test. Jackson would have “no motivation” to fabricate the story, she said, “nor would he jeopardize his future” by doing so.

“It is very disheartening to think that something is going on that is not on the up-and-up,” Stacey Hallahan said.

The senior who spoke on the condition of anonymity said she was surprised the first time the school official helped her on a problem during the “real” test.

“(The official) said to raise your hand if you needed help, and there was a problem I didn’t know how to do, so I raised my hand,” the student said in an interview. “(The official) came over and grabbed my paper and pen and … just worked it out for me… I was like, I didn’t know (the official) was allowed to come over and do that.”

Lauren remembers the same person helping her through her math test.

“I was really struggling with it, and (the official) would see me, like, pausing on an answer and … would come up and (say), ‘Now, you know how to do this.’ And (the official) would point to the answer.”

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