A cheating ring at Richmond’s George W. Carver Elementary School helped lift student test scores, a state investigation found.
Led by the school’s principal, Kiwana Yates, a select group of teachers administered state accountability tests and provided “inappropriate assistance” to students, according to the findings of a two-month Virginia Department of Education investigation released Monday.
The results cast a shadow over a high-poverty school once seen as a bright spot in an underperforming system, where less than half of schools meet the state’s full standards for accreditation.
Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras, in a letter to the school community, called the report “deeply troubling.”
“It presents abundant evidence of what amounts to cheating by a small group of adults on the SOL examinations for the past several years at Carver,” he said. “To be clear: our students did nothing wrong; they merely followed the instructions of the adults responsible for them.”
Yates remains employed by the school system, according to a spokeswoman, who would not say whether five teachers named in the 34-page report kept their jobs.
Asked during a news conference about Yates’ employment, Kamras declined to say why she remained employed by RPS, referring to it as a personnel matter.
Only certain Carver staff members — referred to by other teachers as the “inner circle” — administered the Standards of Learning tests at the school. Some staff members thought those employees received more money for classroom materials, first crack at overtime opportunities and special staff development that sometimes required extensive travel, according to the report.
“It’s like [there are] testing committees,” one person told investigators. “They [certain staff] test everyone.”
If students did not perform well while a teacher was administering the tests, they were relieved of their test examiner responsibilities, according to the report.
Some teachers would help students if they raised their hand or would give indications to students of whether items were correct or incorrect, the report states.
“If I just didn’t know, I’d raise my hand and ask for help. They would read to me,” said one of 35 students interviewed by investigators. “They would sit down next to me and read to me.”
In another situation, a student would look at a teacher and if the teacher smiled, they would go on. If the teacher frowned, the student “knew I needed to check [the work].”
One student, for example, changed 15 incorrect answers to correct answers, while not changing a single correct answer to an incorrect one.
Yates would tell the school’s assistant principal and school test coordinator which teachers she wanted administering tests, the report states.
She defended herself against the allegations in an interview with investigators. Yates did not return an email seeking comment.
“Anybody in my building is able to administer tests,” she told state Education Department staff members. “It doesn’t matter who tests them [the students]. Anybody should be able to administer tests.”
Carver was the only school in Virginia being investigated by the state for testing irregularities. The investigation focused on this year’s tests, but investigators used test scores dating to spring 2014 to show trends in Carver’s pass rates.
Dana Bedden, the superintendent before Kamras, did not return an email Monday requesting comment.
Kamras, who tasked Chief Academic Officer Tracy Epp with leading a team of teachers and principals to make recommendations to ensure proper testing protocols are followed in the future, first made the public aware of the problem in early June, sending a districtwide memo saying that “in some instances, standardized procedures for testing were not followed.”
Details were scarce from the time of Kamras’ message until Monday, when the cloud hanging over the school finally opened, with testing wrongdoings raining down on the school and city school system that’s recently seen a sense of hope as it undergoes a strategic planning process.
Yates, who helped lead Carver to national acclaim, was ousted as the school’s principal shortly after RPS officials received the state’s preliminary investigation findings. She arrived at Carver in 2010 and was named principal in 2012.
Tiawana Giles, previously an assistant principal in the school system, took over this month as the interim principal at Carver.
Under Yates’ leadership, Carver, a self-proclaimed “educational mecca,” earned National Blue Ribbon Award status from the U.S. Department of Education in 2016 — the only school in the Richmond area and one of just seven in Virginia to do so. Yates also received an R.E.B. Award for Distinguished Educational Leadership in 2015, one of the highest honors for school administrators in the Richmond region.
The U.S. Department of Education can rescind the school’s Blue Ribbon status because of the irregularities.
This is the second consecutive year that a Richmond-area elementary school has been found to have cheated on state exams.
Five teachers were fired and a new principal and assistant principal were assigned to Petersburg’s A.P. Hill Elementary School, where students said they were told to write each answer on a piece of paper before submitting it.
A test examiner then would review the answer, and if it was wrong, would tell the students to check their work, students said. If the answer was right, they’d move on to the next question, according to a report from the Virginia Department of Education and a news release from the division.
The Virginia Board of Education withheld accreditation from the school in its ratings for last year, something it could do for Carver this year.
A.P. Hill students did not have to retake the tests.
At Carver, students retook the state tests all the way up until the last day of school. Parents had the option of opting their child out of taking the test.
Virginia allows parents to opt their students out of taking SOL tests in elementary and middle school. There is no consequence to a student’s academic standing or advancement to the next grade if they don’t take the test. The tests start to matter on a student level in high school, when a student must pass the tests to graduate.
When a student doesn’t take an SOL test because of an opt out, the score is reported as a “0,” meaning it could affect a school’s accreditation rating and overall passage rate.
No students at Carver opted out in the two most recent academic years for which data were available from the state Education Department.
With the retakes this year, though, 70 percent of parents refused to have their child retested, according to the report. That figure was especially high in fifth grade, where all but four of the school’s 62 students in that grade were opted out of the retest.
Because of the testing irregularities at Carver, those students will get a “NS” for no score and will not be penalized, the report said.
“Actions by these adults have cheated our kids by reinforcing notions held by some in the community that our students aren’t capable of academic excellence,” said Scott Barlow, who represents the school on the School Board.
Mariah White, who has since stepped down as the head of the school’s Parent-Teacher Association, waited outside the school the day after the investigation became public and encouraged parents to opt their children out of the test. The report said some people — it did not name White — went to students’ homes to encourage parents to opt out of the retests.
A meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at 1103 W. Marshall St. to discuss the future of the school’s PTA. A separate meeting is scheduled for Wednesday night for other members of the Carver community to meet with Kamras.