Some teachers administering standardized student achievement tests in East St. Louis used "inappropriate strategies and techniques" to inflate test scores, according to the superintendent who is running the district at the request of the state.
District 189 Superintendent Arthur Culver said Wednesday that parents and residents in East St. Louis can expect to see some scores drop this year.
"We may see a little dip at some level, in the elementary scores," Culver said. "I'll be honest with you, we found out that there were some inappropriate strategies and techniques used for test administration."
He stopped short of calling the actions "cheating."
"I didn't use that word. We had some inappropriate strategies and techniques that were not consistent with what is in the test administrator's manual, I'll put it that way," he said.
And it doesn't appear to have been an isolated incident.
"I've heard from folks that some of these things were happening in other buildings," he said.
Culver made the remarks during a meeting Wednesday with the Belleville News-Democrat's editorial board. State Superintendent Christopher Koch accompanied Culver on the visit, and gave his approval when Culver asked whether it was OK to discuss the testing irregularities.
Culver and Koch made the visit to discuss why the state is taking steps to remove the school district's elected school board.
In the most recent Illinois Student Achievement Test results, Lilly Freeman Elementary in East St. Louis was the highest-scoring school in St. Clair County, with 96.4 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards.
Culver didn't mention any schools by name.
But he said, "We had a campus that was the highest-performing campus in this county -- amongst the highest in the state. But when you see their scores this year, you'll be like, 'Wow, they dropped.'"
ISAT scores are used to determine a school's progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which demands higher classroom accountability. They also help parents and residents gauge the effectiveness of their schools. And tougher teacher evaluations that some states are rolling out place more weight than ever on the tests.
Another East St. Louis elementary school, Jackson Elementary, also had a high test score: 93.5 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards.
For purposes of comparison, 95.2 percent of students met or exceeded state standards at Cassens Elementary in affluent Glen Carbon.
Two East St. Louis schools were among the bottom scorers in the most recent ISAT test: 50.1 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards at Wyvetter Younge Middle School and 59 percent meeting or exceeding standards at James Avant Elementary.
Representatives of the union that represents East St. Louis teachers did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Culver and Koch said an investigation is being conducted. They declined to give examples of the inappropriate methods that allegedly were used to administer the tests.
Koch next week will ask the State Board of Education to vote on removing the District 189 Board of Education. The district already has been under state oversight, but Culver and Koch said it became almost impossible to deal with local board members.
For example, Culver said board members wanted to extend a lease on the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center, while he wanted to terminate it. The lease is only $1 per year, but the school district pays for maintenance at the building, more than $260,000 per year.
Some board members also wanted employment contracts given to a list of six administrators. Three of them were relatives of board members.
The board reversed its decisions on those two matters only after Koch threatened to remove the board.
The state has authority to remove the local school board because the district has failed to meet academic standards under the federal No Child Left Behind law for nine years. Current District 189 board members are Lavondia Neely, George Mitchum, Victoria Clay, Kinnis Williams, Irma Golliday, Carl Officer and President Lonzo Greenwood.
The state named Culver the superintendent last year. He previously was a superintendent in Champaign.
Culver said the District 189 board was "very cooperative" with him at first, but eventually "decided to draw a line in the sand." Culver said he thinks some board members were pressured by staff and community members who "were accustomed to having a lot of influence" over the board.
"It seems that it just got to a point where they were ignoring objective data that we were utilizing to make informed decisions that were best for the district," Culver said. "At that point, I said, 'You know what? This is just not going to work anymore."
Koch added, "I've got to make sure that Art is supported, and that he is not encountering barriers that he doesn't need. I just feel that it's time to do this."
Culver said he's made a changes, in quick fashion, since taking the helm. Some teachers have been disciplined for behavior such as swearing at students and "being physical" with them. Cuts include the elimination of 144 jobs, and switching 50 full-time positions to part-time ones. Previously, the school district was "an employment agency for the community," Culver said.
The district is in line to receive some major grants, and good teachers are being rewarded, Culver said.
"Staff members are just really excited about what's happening," he said. "They've been looking for some direction. I feel good about where we are right now."
Some questionable contracts -- such as one that costs $18,000 for snow removal every time it snows, and one that costs $270,000 yearly for lawn mowing -- have been eliminated. Also, a risk manager has been hired to rein in costs associated with an unusually high number of workers' compensation claims, and more scrutiny is being given when former employees seek unemployment compensation, Koch said.
District 189 serves more than 7,000 students.
Board members have said it is unfair to blame them for the district's problems. Golliday said she has worked hard to make a difference for the children who attend classes in the district and she is not pleased with the state for dissolving the local board.
"We're a black community. They have no respect for the black community. I bet they wouldn't go into a white community and do the things they are doing to us," she said when the takeover was first announced in April.
Officer has said he was puzzled by the state wanting to remove him from the board because in the last three years, he has been the only voice for change.
Golliday said sitting on the board "is a thankless job."