Illinois investigating Belleville school that gave out real state test for ‘practice’

Illinois investigating test security breach in Belleville

State education leaders were in talks about changing the science assessment because of a security breach. Copies of the test were distributed in Belleville from 2017 to 2018, so students saw the questions before they took the exam.
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State education leaders were in talks about changing the science assessment because of a security breach. Copies of the test were distributed in Belleville from 2017 to 2018, so students saw the questions before they took the exam.

Employees at a Belleville school are under investigation for possible misconduct because they handed out copies of the state’s science assessment long before students were scheduled to take the exam, which is a breach of testing security.

A fifth-grader noticed that she had already seen the questions when she took the assessment March 8.

She told her parents, who contacted Signal Hill Elementary School that afternoon, according to investigative reports that Signal Hill District 181 Superintendent Janice Kunz sent to state education officials.

Official communications about the breach were recently obtained by the Belleville News-Democrat through public record requests.

The school’s staff say they wanted to give students a practice test to help them prepare for the Illinois Science Assessment, but what they distributed was the actual test.

About 47 copies of the test were still unaccounted for in Belleville after it was downloaded from the state’s website last year and continued to be sent home with students through March 1, according to Kunz’s investigation.

In letters to parents and the Illinois State Board of Education, Kunz has said the Signal Hill staff wasn’t trying to “inflate students’ test scores.” But the district’s science assessment results have been invalidated by the state.

State officials were in talks with the U.S. Department of Education this year about what to do with the assessment moving forward, according to an Aug. 2 letter from ISBE to the district.

“In light of the fact that there are tests outstanding within the Signal Hill community, ISBE does not believe that the Illinois Science Assessment can be given with fidelity in Signal Hill,” the state board wrote. “In fact, this incident means that ISBE must re-evaluate the use of the Illinois Science Assessment across the state in the upcoming school year.”

Testing starts again on March 1, 2019.

ISBE will be coming up with new questions to replace half of the Illinois Science Assessment, according to state board spokeswoman Jackie Matthews. But she said those were planned updates of the test and not in response to the breach.

The Signal Hill staff involved, including the superintendent, received written reprimands from the school board in November. They are also being investigated at the state level.

They could face disciplinary action as severe as having their teaching licenses revoked, according to the state board.

Matthews said the matter was still under investigation as of Nov. 27 and that the state wouldn’t be able to comment on any specific educator’s case.

How did a Belleville community get copies of a state test?

Local school leaders have said they don’t know much about the Illinois Science Assessment because the release of test results have been delayed by as much as two years.

In February, Tracy Gray, an assistant superintendent in Belleville District 118, said the only feedback teachers there were getting about the kinds of questions on the test was from their students.

So Katie Monroe, Signal Hill’s technology director, asked state education officials to provide a practice test, according to Kunz’s investigative reports.

Monroe told her boss that when she later logged on to a state website, clicked a link titled “ISA Secure Documents” and downloaded a document labeled “2016 ISA,” she believed it was the practice she asked for: an old version of the state test.

But Illinois used the same test questions each year.

In 2018, schools in Illinois were digging into state test data to learn how much students knew about new science standards in 2016. Belleville News-Democrat education reporter Lexi Cortes explains what the Illinois Science Assessment is.

Kunz decided there had been “no purposeful or malicious violation of test security” after she interviewed Monroe and other staff, as well as the parent of the fifth-grader who said she had seen the questions before.

The parent and student weren’t named in the documents provided to the BND.

“We are horrified that this has happened, and we regret the distress this incident has caused our students, our teachers, and our school community,” Kunz wrote in her investigative report to the Illinois State Board of Education.

Were school staff’s actions ‘merely negligent’ or ‘malfeasant’?

The superintendent said in an April 17 report to the state that Signal Hill school board members had reviewed her investigation and agreed with her conclusions.

“All personnel firmly believed this was a practice test, and it was shared with teachers and students to familiarize students with testing format and protocol,” Kunz wrote. “Since no purposeful violation of test protocol took place, no discipline is necessary.”

The state, however, described the district’s investigative efforts as “focused on deflecting blame and keeping information from getting out.”

In its response to Signal Hill, ISBE stated that it didn’t have enough information at the time to determine whether the staff’s actions “were merely negligent or were malfeasant.”

“The breach may or may not have been intentional on the part of individual actors, but it did occur, which points to systemic causes and areas for needed remediation,” ISBE stated. “... The response of district leadership, both in terms of discipline and systemic improvements in training and support, seem scant.”

A sample question from the Illinois Science Assessment, which was given to Illinois students for the first time in spring 2016. Illinois State Board of Education

The board later voted to send written reprimands to three school employees at its meeting in November:

Superintendent Kunz received one for failing to adequately investigate the breach, according to the board.

Monroe, the district’s technology director, received one for downloading the test.

Another reprimand was sent to Bethany Feucht, a Signal Hill teacher, for failing to fully cooperate in the investigation.

None of the employees responded to requests for comment from the BND.

According to Kunz’s reports to the state, Feucht said that all of the copies of the test had been recovered — which is what the district initially told the state — but that wasn’t the case.

Kunz told the Illinois State Board of Education that Feucht was confused and had not intentionally misled the district.

Feucht was also written up for failing to report the breach to an administrator.

There had been comments about the similarities between the “practice” test and the assessment, according to Kunz’s investigation. Kunz reported to the state board that some teachers were told they should have reported it to the principal immediately.

What happens next for Signal Hill?

ISBE is requiring Signal Hill to pay for monitors or auditors to observe all of its state testing this school year — and possibly longer.

Kunz told parents and state officials that Signal Hill teachers who administer a standardized test would start getting yearly training on testing rules, with more focus on security.

Signal Hill District 181 has about 30 teachers and 350 students in pre-K through eighth grades at Signal Hill Elementary School.

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