The Cranky Taxpayer

PASS the Corruption

Pass on PASS

The documents in the Education Department suggest a remarkable level of corruption of the Governor's PASS program in the Richmond schools and an even more remarkable level of tolerance in the state Education Department.

To begin at the Beginning:

The Partnership for Achieving Successful Schools (PASS) is built around a Memorandum of Agreement ("Memorandum of Agreement" is bureaucratese for "unenforceable bargain") between the PASS schools and the state.  As to the 9-weeks testing in the PASS , this document requires that the school division “ensure the security of the nine-weeks’ test item data base by protecting the items used in the nine-weeks’ test from access and use by teachers on unit tests.

On March 26, 2004, James S. Heywood, the Director of the Office of School Improvement in the Virginia Department of Education wrote, regarding the 9-weeks testing in PASS schools during 2002-03:

The data indicated unreliable results, which we discovered was due to the fact that teachers had access to the test item bank and were unknowingly using some of the items for practice that were also on the test.

So, at a minimum:

  • Teacher have access to the 9-weeks tests that the division has agreed to "protect";

  • Teachers use the test questions for "practice"; and

  • The State says that, despite the requirements of the Memorandum of Agreement, this use was "unknowing."

It gets better.

On March 6, 2003, Mr. Heywood had written the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Deputy Superintendent of the Richmond Public Schools about "The Need to Bring Richmond City Nine-Weeks’ Tests into Compliance with the PASS Agreement":

The use of Litespan/Edutest as a nine-weeks’ test measuring student and program progress on the SOL produces unreliable results. The degree of the problem varies from school to school and is partially related to the frequency of use of the Litespan/Edutest item pool by the classroom teachers prior to the test.

* * *

During the second quarter, the staff readily admitted aggressively using the Edutest items, as encouraged, in the classroom.

* * *

RPS encourages and tracks staff use of the Edutest items for classroom use. The result is, the more they are used, the more they are contaminated for use on the nine-weeks’ tests.

Follow this link to see the entire memorandum.

The Litespan and the Flanagan tests used in Richmond in 2002-03 are commercially available SOL preparation tests.  Regarding the Flanagan tests, Richard L. Williams, Jr., the Testing and Data Systems Manager in Richmond, wrote a TWIMC letter that says:

The test items provided by the company are similar enough in quality to questions used on the State’s curriculum tests and of sufficient quantity to give students valid practice in responding to various item formats and provide teachers with feedback on students’ skill mastery.

In short, these are commercial tests for measuring the kids' progress in learning the material.  Of course, if the teachers drill the kids on the actual test questions, the tests don't measure anything useful.

Richmond signed the PASS Memorandum of Agreement that requires it to "ensure" the confidentiality of these materials and protect them from use by the teachers.  Disdaining that promise, the Richmond school staff "aggressively" used the test questions in the classroom, "as encouraged" by RPS.  And now we have the state saying that use was "unknowing."

Please note the contradictions embedded in this morass: Richmond agreed to protect the materials but encouraged their aggressive use in the classroom; the Richmond school system encouraged the teachers to use confidential materials in the classroom but that use was unknowing.  Whew!

The effect of this cheating was clear enough that for 2003-04 the state developed a statewide 9-weeks testing regime that, it says, is administered with the same security as the SOL tests.  Apparently the effect was not clear enough to the corrupt Richmond system, however: in the test administration memo for this year, the state's Mr. Heywood wrote (highlights mine):

My concern is the repeated requests on the part of many teachers in the SOLAR training to see the items in advance and wanting to have access to the test items so they can teach the items… as they did with Flanagan or Edutest. PLEASE. PLEASE---in addition to the security you will put in place, help the educators understand that if children are taught the items, they will no longer be useful in diagnosing childrens’ needs. In addition, although there may be some short term “looking good” on the nine weeks tests, it will hurt teachers and children alike in the long run by invalidating the items/test and they will not only lose the diagnostic capability of the tests but will receive false data on how effective their teaching has been and will be unable to make corrections. When the SOL tests come, children will not do well because they gave false positives on the nine weeks tests and learning deficits will go undetected, All this in an attempt to avoid possibly looking bad short term, instead of fixing the problems and looking good when it counts. WE HAVE NO MONEY TO MAKE NEW TESTS! The tests will be the same next year so please collect and destroy all tests and protect all answer keys for the reasons outlined above. Only your personnel attention to this can make it happen. My office will not play “big brother” in this regard.

In short:  That kind of cheating is self-destructive but the state is not going to police it, even though many of the teachers want to do it.


After seeing a draft of this page, the Education Department responded on April 8:

PASS is an initiative to raise achievement among students by improving instruction and should be understood in that context.

In assisting low-performing schools, the department operates in accord with the governance provisions of the state constitution and the state code.

See my earlier e-mail regarding what Dr. Heywood subsequently learned about the extent to which reserved items were being used in practice tests. The seriousness with which this was viewed by the department is evident in the excerpt you plan to publish on your Web site. Dr. Heywood viewed this as a very serious issue and insisted that the school division correct it.

That earlier email said:

I talked with Dr. Heywood about the 224 documents [not yet produced by the Department]. He tells me that these documents do not touch upon the issue of practice questions. He is confident of this because this matter came to light during an oral conversation last year with a principal in one school during the review of her school's 9-week test results. The principal shared with Dr. Heywood that she had overheard children say that they had seen certain 9-week test items previously on classroom practice tests.

Subsequently, through an oral conversation with Dr. Brandon of RPS, Dr. Heywood learned that items reserved for use on 9-weeks assessments were accessed for use on practice tests by one teacher at one school.

Ms. Brandon is the Deputy Superintendent in Richmond who refused to produce the documents regarding this situation.  Mr. Heywood is free to believe her if he wishes.  If she had a document that isolated this problem to a single teacher I would expect to have seen it some time back.

Moreover, a single instance is not consistent with Mr. Heywood's discussion of Richmond's "aggressive" use of the tests and RPS' encouragement of that use.  Neither is it consistent with Mr. Heywood's later memorandum discussing "the repeated requests . . . of many teachers . . . to see the items in advance and wanting to have access to the test items so they can teach the items… as they did with Flanagan or Edutest."  (Highlights added).  "Many" teachers cheating on the testing is not the same as a single teacher.

I leave it to you to decide why the Education Department would say "the department operates in accord with the governance provisions of the state constitution and the state code."  Of course the Government is bound by State law.  But nowhere in Virginia law does it say that the Board of Education, which has authority to exercise "general supervision of the public school system" must ignore blatant cheating by the teachers in Richmond.  Especially when that cheating takes place in the Governor's PASS program that is designed to help the most wretchedly ineffective schools.

Hiding the Corruption

In sum, we have some or all of the Richmond PASS schools cheating on a test where the cheating cannot help them and probably will hurt them, and we have them looking for further opportunities to cheat.  Not the students, mind you, the school staff!  And we have the State saying that the school division was obliged to ensure the confidentiality of the test materials but that the "aggressive" use of those test materials for practice, as "encouraged" by RPS, was "unknowing."

This situation cries out for an investigation and, probably, for the transfer of a number of school officials to duties that better suit their talents.

As I point out elsewhere, the state has refused to give me the reports they have sent to the Governor.  We can only hope they told him that Richmond has been embarrassing him by gaming the PASS system (and, thus, further failing the children and citizens of Richmond).  For sure, the Department has not told the Board of Education about the scandal in Richmond, at least not on the record (see the minutes for 10/16/02, 1/6/03, 5/28/03, and 1/7/04).

The state has been helpful about producing documents other than the reports to the Governor.  The Richmond school administration, in contrast, robustly stonewalled my request for information.  Unfortunately, the Richmond school administration's preference for concealment flows straight from the leaders of the School Board.

You might join me in wondering how often the school staff who would cheat on the practice tests (aggressively) (as encouraged by RPS) might do the same thing on the SOLs.

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Last updated 04/01/12
Please send questions or comments to John Butcher