On Monday night, after more than a year of investigations, the Board of Education announced that the State Department of Education’s Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance (“OFAC”) found cheating at Avenel Street and Ross Street Schools and continues to investigate Ford Avenue School and Woodbridge High School. On Tuesday, the report was released for public review. The report marks a sad episode for Woodbridge schools, which is likely to get worse before it gets better. Administrators and Board members ignored clear signs of problems, while students suffer from the result. This is my review of this report.
More than a year ago, the State of New Jersey released a series of reports on erasures for the NJ ASK administrations for 2008–2010. As a result of these reports, investigations were demanded for 34 schools around the State, including three in Woodbridge: Avenel Street, Ross Street and Ford Avenue. OFAC would investigate Avenel Street, while the district would investigate Ross Street and Ford Avenue. The district performed its own investigation of all three schools, finding nothing.
Angered at the cursory investigation, I challenged the Board during its November meeting. I was concerned that the Board should have hired a real investigator to find out what really happened. Instead, the district chose a former Education Commissioner from the academic world, capable of running a school district, but inept at investigating wrongdoing. Standing alone in opposition against the Board, I met a hostile response in my comments during the November meeting. During the subsequent nine months, OFAC would take over the investigation of Ross Street. The investigation was initially dropped against Ford Avenue and then in response to high erasures in 2011, added to OFAC’s agenda. Finally, Woodbridge High School also joined the party. With two reports still to come, we now must reflect on the first part of this sad episode for the district.
The report mostly speaks for itself, but there are several points of concern. Starting with Avenel Street, the allegations are so thoroughly documented, it is hard to imagine true innocence on the part of any of the participants. The statistical evidence was overwhelming. Avenel Street was flagged for high erasures in both 2010 and 2011. In one classroom, the work was so similar as to be virtually impossible to have come any way other than from cheating. The other classrooms had strong statistical evidence combined with witness testimony. Evidence was presented to show why high erasures occurred in both 2010 and 2011. The report does not state whether the teachers provided any alternative explanation to the facts alleged against them. Without that, OFAC seems to have created a solid case against them. The principal admitted to some of the allegations against her, so for her, there does not appear to be a defense either.
In the interest of full disclosure, Sharon Strack, the principal implicated for Ross Street School has been the principal of my daughters at Robert Mascenik over the past two years. That said, for the 2010 administration, there appears to be ample witness testimony showing that Mrs. Strack appeared to have violated testing protocols during the 2010 examinations at Ross Street School. Additionally, there is evidence that following her move to Robert Mascenik, she directed staff members to perform improperly during NJ ASK administrations. Her own testimony seems to indicate some level of wrongdoing as well, although she denies some key facts.
This might appear to be a slam dunk except for one giant hole in the investigation report. Like Avenel Street, Ross Street was flagged for high erasures in both 2010 and 2011. Unlike Avenel Street, no evidence was presented to explain the high erasures at Ross Street in 2011. To the extent the 2011 examination was referenced, it was solely in terms of Mrs. Strack's involvement with the Robert Mascenik staff and a task force, not Ross Street School. This is not to say that I believe it is likely that Mrs. Strack is innocent, but clearly there is more here that we are missing. If she departed Ross Street in 2010, how would the high erasures still occur if she were the only responsible party? It also might aid Mrs. Strack's defense, which is that others are lying about what she did and said. It seems that more investigation is necessary in order to know if we have the full story.
The Response of the Board President
I'm not sure what Board President Brian Small’s definition of a district-wide problem is, but if four schools are under investigation and the only two with a final report have found cheating, it certainly is far from a localized one. This Board, with the Board President at the helm, had every opportunity to look at this further. If they didn't understand on their own the magnitude of the statistical evidence alone, they certainly did when I spoke before the Board. They knowingly and consciously chose not to act. Additionally, stating that no test scores will be changed, as if that is a positive act, shows a complete disregard for the real harm here. Keeping the test scores may help lift some egos and keep the district's testing temporarily looking good, but it hides the sad truth that there are children at these schools who received scores far higher than their abilities. These exams are not just used to measure schools, but also to measure the ability of students. What if we denied a student of necessary help because of a bogus score? Sure, it will eventually be corrected, but at what loss? One year of schooling? Two? Until the Board realizes that education is about teaching students and not the image of the district, we have far more to fix.
Issues of Concern
There are many parts of the investigation that the district could not have discovered, as they did not have access to the actual exams. But that is not true for all issues and some are so egregious as to leave us wondering whether the Board and Superintendent are either incompetent or culpable in a coverup. First, 38 of 80 students at Avenel Street had perfect 300 scores in Math. Because the district has access to individual scores, it knows this and this should have raised an alarm. Also, the district should have checked how students in the schools with high erasures did in the 2011 exam and compared it to 2010. At Ross Street, 76% of third graders in 2010 saw a drop in their 2011 Language Arts Literacy scores. This is a key point and was missed in the district's original investigative report. The district had this information and did not bring it forward. Finally, and this is the worst of all, it says that Dr. Crowe was informed by the WTEA that Sharon Strack was encouraging the interference with student responses during the 2011 NJ ASK. If true, why was Dr. Crowe so confident that despite the high erasures that there was no cheating during the summer following that school year? What did Dr. Crowe know and when did he know it?
I have thought long and hard about this and have come to a difficult conclusion. Regarding Dr. Crowe, it would be best for the district if he were to resign. Perhaps he returns as a principal. Perhaps he goes somewhere else. He spends much too much time trying to keep the negative aspects of the district hidden, while promoting the positive, which all too often has been the state test scores. With some of these scores shown to be a fraud, what does that leave? Should he choose not to resign, it probably isn't worth a fight to fire him. He could simply serve out the remaining ten months of his contract in disgrace. He leads the district and he must be held responsible for major wrongdoing on his watch, especially when it appears that in some cases, he was willfully blind to it. With four schools under investigation, the time is now to go. He should be replaced with an outsider with no ties to Woodbridge. Someone needs to serve that will stand up for what is right and not cave to the will of the Board of Education.
That leaves the Board of Education. Boards of education have one principal responsibility, which is to see that the schools are well run. This Board had opportunities to do the right thing and failed. They chose to accept a cursory investigation and ignore evidence to the contrary. They have failed our students. We would be better off if there were a mass resignation, allowing the Executive County Superintendent to replace the Board.
This is a sad time for the district and more bad news is likely to come. Hopefully, from this failure, it can bring the township together to rebuild it the right way.