April 12, 2012

Sources: Wichita district investigating test scores at elementary school

The principal of Enterprise Elementary School in Wichita has taken a leave of absence and district officials are investigating possible improprieties on state assessment tests at the school.

The principal of Enterprise Elementary School in Wichita has taken a leave of absence and district officials are investigating possible improprieties on state assessment tests at the school.

Pam Stead, principal at Enterprise since 2007 and a 27-year district employee, recently took a paid leave of absence for “personal business,” district spokeswoman Susan Arensman said Thursday. Christy Winn, the testing coordinator at Enterprise, also is on paid leave, Arensman said.

Arensman would not say whether the district had discovered improprieties or questionable test practices at the school.

“As part of the testing process districtwide, there’s checks and balances that we go through … and we have to make sure all the regulations are followed,” she said. “If there’s ever a question, we look into it.

“Until the testing cycle is over, we really can’t comment.”

Stead did not return calls and e-mails for comment.

Carol Dunne, assistant principal at Caldwell Elementary, was transferred to Enterprise as acting principal, Arensman said.

Winn, the test coordinator, said Thursday she could not comment.

Several sources said an investigation of state assessments administered earlier this semester at Enterprise revealed scores that increased after students had completed those portions of the tests.

The Wichita district uses online versions of state assessments, which are administered on school computers. The assessments are part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates that every student meet testing benchmarks by 2014 and holds schools accountable for results.

Bob Winkler, a consultant hired by the district to assist with assessments, said he could not comment specifically about ongoing investigations.

He said numerous safeguards are in place – including secure computer logons and testing protocols – to make cheating by students, teachers or administrators “extremely unlikely.”

Once a student completes each portion of a test and submits the answers, for instance, “a very few authorized personnel” at the school building level are able to reopen the test, said Winkler, who wrote the Kansas state assessment manual.

Legitimate reasons for reopening a test could be that a student suddenly becomes ill while taking a test or that a fire alarm prompts the evacuation of a testing room, he said.

People with access to reopen tests online include the principal and test coordinator at the school, Winkler said.

“Test results are monitored daily to see if the score of any student has changed from one day to the next,” he said. “In addition, schools are visited both by local personnel and state-level officials to see if testing protocols are being properly and completely followed.

“Each school keeps a log of students who were allowed to finish a test part from a previous day, noting the reason in the log,” Winkler said. “These logs are compared to data downloads from the (Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation) that detail the date and time a student started and finished each test part.”

‘Climate of trust’

The emphasis on state assessments has taken hold on school culture nationwide in the past decade because the No Child Left Behind law uses the scores as the principal way to judge a school’s quality.

For some high-poverty schools that receive federal funding, the test results in reading and math could determine whether they have to provide tutoring, let families transfer to other schools or even restart the school from scratch.

Enterprise, near I-235 and MacArthur Road in south Wichita, was the focus of an Eagle report in February that highlighted large gains in assessment scores over the past five years.

In 2008, state officials listed the high-poverty school as “on improvement” because it didn’t meet state test targets, and it faced a host of sanctions under No Child Left Behind.

That year, just over half the school’s third- through fifth-graders passed state reading assessments. Students who didn’t speak English as their first language fared even worse: only one in four passed the reading test.

During Stead’s tenure, Enterprise’s scores improved dramatically. Last spring, more than 83 percent of students passed reading and math assessments, and the school had nearly closed the achievement gap between white and non-English-speaking students.

More than 90 percent of children at Enterprise receive free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty. Poverty has long been shown to influence how well a student will perform in school, though experts caution that poverty does not make low performance inevitable.

Stead told The Eagle in February that she had to foster a “climate of trust” among students, teachers and parents to help the school battle back from low test scores and low expectations.

“When people know you care about them and love them and want them to succeed, they do it,” Stead said in February. “That really is the biggest piece of the whole puzzle.”

Before her tenure at Enterprise, Stead was principal at Riverside Elementary and assistant principal at Horace Mann Dual Language Magnet. She taught in several other Wichita schools, starting at McCormick Elementary in 1985, where she was a first-grade teacher.

No rush to judgment

Winkler said suspected improprieties on state tests are reported to Kansas State Department of Education officials. Depending on the situation, students with incomplete tests could finish certain portions of the assessment within a district's testing season, he said.

Kansas has one of the largest assessment windows in the nation, starting in February and running through April.

In an e-mail to principals and other district officials Thursday afternoon, Alicia Thompson, assistant superintendent for elementary schools, said, “There is NO confirmation at this point of wrong-doing.

“What the district is doing, which we do throughout every year’s testing cycle, is to monitor adherence to the procedures and protocols tied to state testing,” Thompson said in the e-mail.

“When things that are out of the ordinary come to light, the district will investigate further to guarantee the integrity of the process and ensure that the super-human work that you all, and your staff and students, do to be successful on state assessment each year are recorded with absolute confidence in the results. That same protocol is being followed this year, and … until the testing cycle is completed and all of our checks and balances confirmed, there won’t be any specific information available.

“It is important that we not rush to any judgment, and that we support our elementary family at Enterprise. Across the district, we all work tirelessly to do what is right for kids, and we need to remain focused on that commitment and let this year’s process work itself through.”


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