Thoughts on the Flanner House cheating allegations

If cheating at Indianapolis Flanner House Elementary School was as bad as reports suggest, the question you have to ask is: Why? Why would a teacher, or teachers, bend the rules to boost their students ISTEP+ scores when they were likely to get caught?

Were they under that much pressure to raise test scores? Were they worried the school might be shut down? Did they think their students were at an unfair disadvantage in a rigged testing game?

We don’t know for sure what happened at Flanner House. Reports by the Indiana Department of Education and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard’s charter-school office suggest there was cheating in 2013 and 2014. But officials at the school pushed back against the allegations.

“I don’t believe there was massive cheating for Grades 3 to 6 here,” school board president Patricia Roe told parents last week, according to the Indianapolis Star.

Flanner House is a charter school where over 90 percent of students qualify for free school lunches and nearly all are African-American. It shocked school-watchers in spring 2013 by recording some of the highest ISTEP+ passing rates in the state, after a fairly mediocre performance in previous years.

That apparently sparked an investigation, and the state education department reported last week that students’ test sheets included an unusually high number of wrong-to-right answer changes, suggesting someone was guiding them. Some test booklets, the state said, had answers in more than one handwriting, including sections that appeared to be written by an adult.

In 2014, the school’s ISTEP+ scores reverted to being mediocre. But investigators found evidence that students were prepped for questions and prompts that would be on the test. Suspicion fell on a school employee who resigned after being confronted.

The school board voted last week to close the school, leaving students and their families scrambling to find new schools three weeks into the academic year.

‘The Jungle Book’ and superheroes

One allegation by city officials is that a school employee encouraged fourth-grade teachers to have their students watch the movie “The Jungle Book” and films about superheroes and gods. This suggests there were questions on the fourth-grade test about those topics.

It seems likely that, in most schools, fourth-graders would have watched at least one version of “The Jungle Book” and plenty of shows about superheroes during their lives. But might that not be the case at Flanner House? Could the employee have been trying to level the playing field?

The topic of cultural bias in standardized tests – including cultural references that are familiar to some groups of students but not others – deserves more attention. Maybe in another post.

Leadership failures

Even without the cheating allegations, Flanner House was in the doghouse with the mayor’s office, which issued its charter. An Aug. 18 memo Brandon Brown, the city charter schools director, enumerated financial woes, complaints from the school’s landlord and loss of enrollment, in addition to academic shortcomings.

“Flanner House School’s performance has been such that the Office of Education Innovation has grounds to revoke its charter pursuant to the Charter Agreement,” he wrote.

The state education department invalidated Flanner House’s 2013 and 2014 ISTEP+ scores and revoked its four-star school award but didn’t call for closing it. But the mayor’s office was ready to pull the plug.

“The board, to their credit, made the right decision” in closing the school, Ballard told reporters, according to Chalkbeat Indiana.

Brown’s letter suggests, however, that the board was AWOL while the school struggled. Board members were disengaged and it failed to evaluate the school leader for two years. Nearly half the time, there wasn’t a quorum at scheduled board meetings.

Sends a damaging message

One can empathize with the school employee who, confronted about possible cheating, insisted that “everything I did was for the kids,” according to a mayor’s office report. Children will certainly feel better about themselves if they pass high-stakes tests than if they fail. Maybe, like the teachers in a New Yorker story about the Atlanta cheating scandal, adults at Flanner House thought the kids would suffer if the school closed.

But whatever the motivation, this kind of cheating – if it occurred – does no favors to the students that it was intended to help. It sends a message that we don’t think they’re capable. And it casts a horribly unfair shadow on high-poverty schools whose students do well on standardized tests.

Note: Thanks to Amos Brown of WTLC in Indianapolis for posting the mayor’s office reports.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Flanner House cheating allegations

  1. Cheating like this takes a systematic effort.

    I’m assuming the test irregularities occurred on the paper/pencil section of ISTEP. This portion of the test is in a booklet that the students write in. Schools receive the test booklets prior to testing. The protocol is that the tests should be kept under lock and key. Teachers should not see the test until they administer it.

    Obviously, someone who had access to the tests told teachers what to prepare for. The teachers were then encouraged (coerced?) into manipulating test results. Someone in administration was complicit.

    Not to excuse this type of behavior, but what do people expect? Put schools under enormous pressure to produce results on standardized testing and some will cut corners.

    Though it’s not technically cheating, nearly every school teaches to the test to some degree. Students are coached on how to complete a writing prompt. Teachers create assignments using the test format. Curriculum is designed to enhance test-taking skills. The list goes on and on.

    • Inteach, read the city memo that’s linked from the words “suspicion fell on.” It’s heavily redacted, but apparently keys to the test cabinet went missing for two weeks or so, they mysteriously reappeared when it was time to get out the tests. And you’re definitely writing about schools emphasizing test-taking skills and test formats.

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