An elementary school whose recent honors include a character education award failed to test 16 students last spring on at least one mandatory exam used by the state to gauge academic performance.
Dreamkeepers Academy is the fourth Norfolk school found to have testing irregularities last year on the Standards of Learning exam or an alternative test.
Each of the 16 students skipped at least one of the four SOL tests covering reading, science, math and history and social sciences.
One former Dreamkeepers teacher said she resigned because the school intentionally exempted underperforming students from taking SOL tests. Another former teacher said that instructors were pressured to maintain high test scores.
“We were asked to cheat and some people were cheating,” said Nicole Fagnan, who taught at Dreamkeepers last year. “It made me sick to my stomach to know they were given an award for character.”
Dreamkeepers Principal Doreatha White said Tuesday that school administrators never told teachers to pull low-achieving students out of testing.
The testing problems were the result of simple error in collecting answer sheets for some students, and the state did not find the incident to be serious enough to investigate, Norfolk Superintendent Stephen C. Jones said.
Karren Bailey, who heads the department in charge of testing and other research, said the division’s own oversight procedure revealed that answer sheets for 16 out of 160 students were missing in grades 3, 4 and 5 on reading, math, science, history and social science.
Answer sheets, which must be filed for students absent during testing, were subsequently gathered from the school even though the students were not tested.
Norfolk’s pattern of testing irregularities have Virginia education leaders so concerned that state schools Superintendent Patricia Wright took the unusual step last month of urging city officials to get tutored on how to properly administer accreditation tests, Charles Pyle, spokesman for the state Education department, said.
SOL or Virginia Grade Level Alternative testing problems were also discovered last year at Lafayette-Winona Middle School, Northside Middle and Campostella Elementary School and investigated by the state.
“The department is very concerned about making sure the Board of Education’s regulations are followed and that all the procedures for the assessment program are, in fact, followed in every school in every division,” Pyle said.
The state uses SOL tests to determine whether a school should be accredited. For divisions, accreditation is the gold standard, and denial is a source of embarrassment.
Pyle said the test sheets Norfolk eventually filed for the non-participating Dreamkeepers students said that some were absent, exempt or that they refused to take the tests.
Fagnan, the teacher who said she resigned over the issue, told The Virginian-Pilot that low-achieving students were intentionally withheld from SOL testing when she taught fifth-grade during the 2008-09 school year. Fagnan said she was so bothered by the practice that she resigned last June and took a job in Florida “due to the moral dilemmas that I had working at the school.”
Fagnan said she asked her team leader what would happen with children who were pulled from classes to avoid testing. She was told those kids would “just stay in the gym,” she recalled.
“There were certain kids pulled at testing who never took the SOL,” she said. “The children pulled during testing were not those with any sort of disability.”
Hageman said many of his students had strong potential.
“But you’ll see 80, 90, 100 test scores,” he said. “There was no way 100 percent of my kids were writing on a fourth- grade level–some couldn’t even form paragraphs that would be cohesive. You’d do your best to get them ready, but 100 percent? Come on.”
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