Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner Dr. Wayne Lewis apologized to Floyd County this week, after the release of a report citing multiple violations during past K-PREP testing at Betsy Layne Elementary, including evidence that staff “deliberately altered” answer sheets for higher scores and placing low-scoring students in the special education program to receive accommodations on state assessments.
“On behalf of the Kentucky Department of Education and our system, I want to apologize to students, to parents and to the Floyd County community,” he said. “I want them to know that this is not who we are as a system. I want them to know that educators across the state, who face similar challenges and work with students from all types of backgrounds and who face the same type of accountability pressures, choose to do it right — to respond to the pressure, to respond to the challenges and serve kids well. I believe that happened to most educators in Floyd County, I know it happens to most educators across the Commonwealth. I apologize to them for the damage this has done to their students and the community. And I want them to know that we are going to do everything within our power in corroboration with Superintendent (Danny) Adkins and the district to make sure it does not happen again.”
The report revealed numerous testing violations, including evidence of deliberate alterations of tests that correlated with higher test scores at BLES, as well as allegations that former district administrators “created a culture” where schools competed against each other for higher test scores. Based on the evidence gathered, the KDE determined that all 2017 K-PREP content area scores for the school “will be invalidated.”
“In terms of the complexity of the case, the cheating in different ways, the referrals for special education, altering responses, the inappropriate accommodations — frankly, I have never heard of all of these things together in one case in all of my time as commissioner or otherwise throughout the course of my career,” said Lewis.
Lewis said he wanted to make clear that there was no connection between high test scores and funding for schools.
“One of the big misconceptions that I see floating around, not just in Floyd County but across the state, is this idea that test scores are tied to school funding. And that is just not true in Kentucky,” said Lewis. “The better schools perform in their testing and the higher they perform in the accountability system — there is no funding attached to that. The way that we rate schools in the accountability system to provide a measure of quality, preparedness for the community and to diagnose where improvements are needed. The only way funding is connected to our accountability system is if you score at the very bottom of the accountability system, so you are one of the bottom five percent of schools in the state — then you qualify for additional funding. The relationship is actually inverted than what people think — that performing high will get you more money.”
KDE required the school district to implement a corrective action plan, following the release in June 2018 of an audit of the district’s services for children with special needs. It also uncovered numerous violations of state regulations concerning special needs education, and “inappropriate state assessment practices,” as well as other concerns that impacted students of all abilities throughout the district. The 87-page audit reported that Floyd County schools referred students without disabilities to special education even though they didn’t need those services.
Lewis said the results of that June 2018 audit will have an impact on funding.
“What you saw in this newest report, which was a repetition of what was on the last report, was that there was an effort to intentionally identify kids for the special education program even when it is pretty clear that they did not, or should not, be identified for special education,” said Lewis. “What is striking about this practice, is that it did not even align with the district’s policies and procedures for identifying kids. So first, it’s wrong. Second, it doesn’t comply with what policy the local district has put into place. In terms of funding, there are state and federal implications for students who have been identified as special needs.
Lewis said at the state level, the funding formula is differentiated based on the characteristics of students. When the student qualifies for special education, depending on their specific disability, schools may receive increases in the amount of funding per student.
“The same is true of federal funding. Students receive additional federal funding to support the education of kids with special needs,” he said. “One of the next steps for us could be a child count audit. We will make a determination of that soon.”
A child count audit, according the Lewis, is a review of all student information to determine whether or not the student had been improperly referred to special education and the extent of the misconduct.
“Depending on the result of that audit, the district could be in the position where they may be required to repay those funds,” he said.
The KDE report issued this week recommended BLES Principal John Kidd, BLES Vice Principal Rebecca Ratliff, District Testing Coordinator Tonya Williams and BLES teacher Jordan Kidd to go before the Education Standards Board, which among other responsibilities, handles issuing, renewing, suspending and revoking certificates for certified school personnel.
Lewis said, from his previous experience as a educational professional standards board member, that additional investigations will determine the context, the situation and what exactly happened.
“Our investigators will follow where the information takes us,” he said. “If it leads us to the place where there were inappropriate practices beyond Betsy Layne, then it could go there. It depends on where the investigation goes.”
Lewis said that the board has the authority to “take any number of actions” against the staff named in the report, ranging from nothing, to more training, to a professional admonishment, to losing their teaching certifications. He said that he estimates the staff will face the board during an upcoming meeting.
Lewis said that the impact on the students is immeasurable.
“The impact on the students does not come from the invalidation of the test scores. It comes from the really unprofessional and unethical decisions made on the account of staff. Students were identified for special education based on their scoring on standardized education,” he said. “By doing that, those students were deprived of educational services that were appropriate for their learning. In some cases, you have some kids that missed out for years on services, on instruction that was appropriate for them — from moving them forward, from learning because professionals made decisions to game the system rather than serve kids the way they deserve to be served.”