Education

Illinois completes investigation of how copies of state test got out in Signal Hill School

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.

Illinois finished its investigation into how copies of the state science test got out in Belleville before students took the exam last March and decided to take no action against the educators involved.

The Illinois State Board of Education sent a letter to the Signal Hill District 181 School Board on Monday announcing that it won’t be sanctioning the teachers or superintendent, whose retirement also started on Monday with three months left in the school year.

Teachers and administrators can have their state-issued licenses suspended or revoked, or they can be required to undergo training for committing “serious acts of misconduct,” according to Illinois law.

Signal Hill District 181 completed its own investigation in the summer after discovering students had seen the test questions before they took the Illinois Science Assessment last spring. The investigation was prompted by a fifth-grader who noticed the similarities in the actual exam and a “practice test” that had been sent home. Superintendent Janice Kunz led the district’s probe.

The school staff told her they wanted to give students resources to help them prepare for the Illinois Science Assessment, a new exam they knew little about. They gave out a document labeled “ISA 2016,” which they thought was an old version of the test, according to Kunz’s reports. It was downloaded from a password-protected state website.

What they didn’t know was that the state used the same test questions each year.

Illinois’ education leaders were critical of the report Kunz submitted to them about the error. They described her investigation as inadequate and “focused on deflecting blame and keeping information from getting out” in communication with the school board.

“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,” the state wrote in an Aug. 2 letter.

The school board issued written reprimands in November to the staff involved in downloading and distributing the test and, for Kunz, later not adequately investigating how it happened.

Kunz decided to retire effective March 18, after more than three decades in education. Local retired educator Allen Scharf was hired to handle the superintendent’s responsibilities until the board picks Kunz’s replacement. Scharf previously worked in Signal Hill, according to Principal Brooke Wiemers, who announced his return to the school community on Facebook.

Before it votes on a contract with the next superintendent, the school board is asking parents and Signal Hill residents to tell it what qualities they want in the district’s leader. It arranged a “public focus group” Tuesday night at the school for board members to get input from citizens.

Honesty and transparency were among the first suggestions from the group for important traits for the superintendent to have.

School board president Paul Slocomb said it was the fourth focus group the district has heard from. Board members previously asked groups of parents, teachers and the candidates running for school board in the April election for their opinions.

In the meantime, Signal Hill’s students will take the Illinois Science Assessment again April 8-12. The district was required to hire external monitors, who will observe all of the state testing this school year and possibly longer.

Its past science assessment scores from 2016, 2017 and 2018 were invalidated by the state because copies of the test got out.

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The metro-east is home for investigative reporter Lexi Cortes. She was raised in Granite City, went to school in Edwardsville and now lives in Collinsville. Lexi has worked at the Belleville News-Democrat since 2014, winning multiple state awards for her investigative and community service reporting.


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