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Seattle Principal, Teacher Placed On Leave After Suspicious Test Results

Kyle Stokes

An investigation into who altered students' answers on state standardized tests at Beacon Hill International School has found three district employees breached protocols designed to protect exam materials from tampering, Seattle Public Schools officials have announced.

But a months-long investigation still hasn't concluded who altered the test materials themselves, a district spokeswoman said.

Seattle Public Schools officials placed two of those employees — Beacon Hill principal Po Tang and ELL teacher Judy Eng — on paid administrative leave Friday. The third who broke the rules, former assistant principal Michele Nishioka, left the district for another job last July.

They broke the rules by improperly storing the test booklets and reading completed student exam books, according to a district statement.

'Professional Reputations Are At Stake'

Though Beacon Hill had seen upward ticks in it test scores in recent years, last year's test results at Beacon Hill were odd enough to raise red flags at the district office last spring, Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman Stacy Howard said.

In August, the district alerted the state superintendent's office, which found growth in the school's reading scores, for instance, "were considerably above growth observed by any school" in Washington state in 2012-13. They found "heavy erasures" on testing materials and concluded that someone had altered the results "in such a way as to significantly increase total scores," superintendent Larry Nyland has written.

In October, state officials threw out the school's math and reading results for 2013-14 and district officials hired a lawyer to investigate what happened.

"The students, staff and families at Beacon Hill have been extremely patient. We recognize the investigation has taken months, but conducting a fair and complete investigation takes time. Integrity of this testing process as well as professional reputations are at stake, so we need to be diligent and thorough," Howard said at a Friday afternoon press conference.

'It's Too Early To Call It Cheating'

Seattle school principals can earn achievement bonuses based, in part, on student test scores. But a number of other factors also go into determining whether a principal earned that bonus, including survey and evaluation results, said Kelly Aramaki, who oversees schools in the district's Southeast Region.

High numbers of erasure marks are irregular — testing experts say, in general, students erase often only erase one or two answers on any given test — which is why they're powerful source of evidence in investigations into cheating on standardized tests. But there can be legitimate explanations for those marks.

The district has avoided using the term "cheating" in its public statements about Beacon Hill's results, and Aramaki said labeling it as such would be premature.

"The amount of changes made to the tests were likely to trigger some kind of alert at the district or at OSPI. There were so many changes and so many students who were changed to score near-perfect answers. To me, I would say it's too early to call it cheating," he said.

Former Beacon Hill principal Susie Murphy will take over as the school's interim leader for the remainder of the school year.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.