Investigator: Waterbury students were coached to fix test answers

At the urging of their “intimidating and vindictive” principal, teachers at a Waterbury elementary school coached students to change incorrect answers on the Connecticut Mastery Test last spring, a state investigation of alleged cheating has found.

The investigation also concluded that educators at the Hopeville School violated test security procedures, received unauthorized copies of test questions in advance, and improperly allowed some students to receive special accommodations, including extra time to complete the test.

hopewell graphic

The report paints a picture of a school where Principal Maria Moulthrop, with the assistance of a reading teacher, fostered an atmosphere of intimidation that led to improprieties surrounding administration of the Connecticut Mastery Test.

“While several other teachers participated in improper… activities, this participation was, in major part, due to fear of reprisals by Mrs. Moulthrop,” said a report to the State Department of Education by investigator Frederick L. Dorsey of the Hartford law firm Siegel, O’Connor, O’Donnell & Beck.

The apparent irregularities came to light in July when Waterbury officials questioned Hopeville School’s stunning rise in scores on the Mastery Test, the annual test that is the state’s chief benchmark of educational progress. The test is given to children in grades three through eight.

Waterbury is an impoverished urban district that has struggled with low test scores over the years, but Hopeville posted scores this year that exceeded those in even some of the state’s most affluent districts. All of the school’s fifth-graders, for example, met the rigorous state goal in both mathematics and reading, something that rarely occurs anywhere in the state and has never occurred in Waterbury,

Waterbury officials suspended 15 teachers and two administrators, including Moulthrop, pending the outcome of the investigation of what appears to be the most serious ethical breach in the 26-year history of the Mastery Test.

Moulthrop has an unlisted phone number and could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but Dorsey’s report alleges that she and reading teacher Margaret Perugini gave statements during the investigation that were “not credible” and not consistent with statements from other staff members.

In the report, Moulthrop, the principal at Hopeville since 1993, denied some of the allegations, including the assertion that she encouraged teachers to help students change answers by telling them, “Check your work.” The report said Moulthrop was described by her staff “as being demanding, intimidating and vindictive to anyone who questioned her decisions.”

Perugini, a veteran teacher with more than 30 years seniority, was heavily involved in administration of the Mastery Test but “acted during her interviews as if she knew little or nothing regarding many aspects of the preparation or testing process,” the report said.

Mark Linabury, a spokesman at the State Department of Education, which received the report this week, said the department will confer with Waterbury officials on possible next steps. “We’re not drawing any conclusions on the culpability of individuals named in the report,” he said.

Under state law, educators found to violate testing rules or cheat on tests are subject to having their teaching licenses revoked.

According to Dorsey’s report, there was “sufficient credible evidence… that testing irregularities occurred,” including allegations by some teachers that they had been advised by Moulthrop to monitor test-takers by stopping to “look down and say ‘check your work’ in a manner designed to indicate… that an answer was wrong.”

Two students who were interviewed by Dorsey said they remember teachers pointing to questions on the test and saying, “Check your work.”

“Both students said they understood this to mean that an answer needed to be changed,” the report said. One of the students, Dorsey added in a footnote, had been enrolled at Hopewell because the child’s parents were impressed by the school’s CMT scores.

The report describes Hopeville as a school where the emphasis on raising test scores was so intense that art and music instruction and library periods were suspended to allow time for Mastery Test drills.

At the beginning of the school year, according to the report, Moulthrop emphasized the importance of raising test scores to avoid the creation of a parents’ committee that would have decision-making authority at the school. The legislature last year pass a law authorizing such committees in low-performing schools.

The report also said that in the days leading up to the test last spring, Perugini distributed practice questions and vocabulary words that were nearly identical to the questions and vocabulary words on the actual test–a clear violation of testing procedures.

Teachers said they were told to review the material with their students. One teacher said he recalled Perugini’s saying she had obtained the questions and vocabulary words from “a friend” named “Vito.”

The investigation also found that school improperly allowed some students to receive testing modifications, including extra time or special small group test settings. Those modifications are permitted only for disabled students who meet specific criteria, but Hopeville offered the modifications to students who did not meet the criteria–in some cases identifying them only as behavior problems.

Several teachers said they suspected improprieties, including the possibility that someone actually changed answers on the tests. One teacher told Dorsey she was incredulous at Perugini’s assertion that a particular student had a perfect score on the reading test. This was a special education student who at Moulthrop’s request had been placed, over the teacher’s objections, with Perugini in a small group test setting with extra time, according to the report.

The teacher said the student’s abilities were well below the level required for such a high score and were inconsistent with his classroom performance.

The report also cited testimony from teachers that test booklets were sometimes left lying openly in Moulthrop’s office “with no valid explanation,” a violation of test security procedures.

Several teachers told Dorsey that the doors to Moulthrop’s and Perugini’s offices were locked for hours at a time in the days immediately following the administration of the tests, an unusual occurrence, the report said. The two shared adjacent offices. Dorsey said he also was told that the window in Perugini’s door was covered with a paper at times during that period.

Perugini told Dorsey that she had lost her keys to her office last fall and had to ask custodians to open her office when she arrived at school each morning.  “My interview of the two Hopeville custodians confirmed that they had no recollection of Mrs. Perugini needing help to get in her office,” Dorsey wrote.