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Testing results disputed

With Benchmark tests for the White Hall School District scheduled the week of April 9, Superintendent Dr. Larry Smith and School Board President Scott Pittillo said they surprised last week after they began receiving inquiries about the While Hall district appearing on a list of districts investigated for test grade cheating.

Questions of academic integrity can lead to a crisis of confidence among parents, they acknowledged to The Progress.

The district was mentioned in a study that took an intense look at Benchmark test results from across the country, Smith noted.

“While the district was not aware that such a study was being conducted, we certainly welcomed the results that clearly indicated that the White Hall School District was among the more than 98 percent of school districts across the country that have no indication of cheating on our Benchmark exams,” he added. “In fact, our district had a zero percent variation from expected test scores in two of the four years examined. In the other two years, the district was well below the expected 5 percent variation in scores due to what is termed ‘statistical noise’ occurring in all studies of this size.

“The scores for the district during those two years were 3.57 percent and 3.85 percent. We are very proud of the hard work and improved scores that our district has received over the past four years. Our students, staff and administrators should be congratulated for the improvements that have occurred.”

“In any year, a typical (non-cheating) district might expect to have about 5 percent of its classes flagged for unusually high or low performance relative to their performances in the previous year,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution explained in its methodology for the nationwide survey. “Districts which consistently have 10 percent or more of their classes flagged or which have an extremely high flag rate in a particular year certainly deserve further examination.”

The Journal-Constitution’s test score database indicated the number of classes in each district and the percentage of those classes that were flagged over a four-year period. “A class is a group of students in the same school from one year to the next. For example, fourth grade students in 2009 and fifth grade students in 2010. A ‘flag’ only indicates a test-score shift outside the norm,” the report said.

Three Little Rock television stations reported the White Hall district had been singled out for the study, apparently triggering the inquiries to Smith and Pittillo.

“Unfortunately, some of the local media outlets in our state chose to pick up the story and present it in such a way that a positive story for our district was presented in a negative light,” Smith wrote in an email to teachers and administrators. “Our district was simply mentioned as being part of a ‘cheating study’ without explaining that study or indicating that our results were found to have no evidence of cheating.”

Both Pittillo and Smith contacted several of the television stations and asked that they at least clarify the story. KATV, Channel 7, broadcast a follow-up to the original story indicating that none of the 22 Arkansas districts mentioned in the original story were among the 200 districts nationwide that were implicated as having scores that might indicate a pattern of cheating on tests.

While the analysis doesn’t prove cheating, it revealed that scores in hundreds of cities “followed a pattern that, in Atlanta, indicated cheating in multiple schools,” the Journal-Constitution reported.

The Atlanta paper said it examined test results for 69,000 schools in 49 states and found high concentrations of suspect scores in 196 school districts.

The Atlanta paper’s analysis “flagged” 3.57 percent of the White Hall class Benchmark tests in 2008 and 3.85 percent in 2009, but none in 2010 and 2011.

A Jan. 20, 2010, document on file at the district office indicated that third and fourth grade test answer documents from Gandy Elementary School representing 148 students was lost by the state contracted carrier.

Dorothy Welch, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, noted the test documents were left on a shipping dock and damaged by rain. The contents of the boxes containing the documents where then thrown away by the carrier.

Smith said the carrier lost its state contract as a result of the security breach.

Among the 22 Arkansas districts surveyed by the Journal-Constitution, the percentage of test scores “flagged” ranged from 8.16 to 10.42 percent at West Memphis, 11.76 to 29.17 percent at Jonesboro, 2.94 to 11.76 percent at Bryant to 10.71 to 17.86 percent at Bentonville over the same four year period.