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Denver principal of school in cheating probe got bonuses for stellar scores

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The principal at one of two Denver elementary schools being investigated for cheating on standardized tests was paid at least $32,000 in bonuses as a reward for his students’ high achievement.

In his 10 years as principal at Beach Court Elementary in north Denver, Frank Roti has won accolades — and financial reward — across the state and the country for leading disadvantaged students to stellar academic achievement.

Now, the state is investigating whether Beach Court, along with Hallett Fundamental Academy in north Park Hill, altered students’ responses on standardized tests.

Denver Public Schools said Tuesday it had asked the state to investigate testing practices at two schools, later identified by sources as Beach Court and Hallett. The investigation followed the district’s lengthy and intense review of recent standardized tests.

The principals of the two schools under investigation have been placed on administrative leave, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg said.

Reached at his home Wed-nesday, a clearly distraught Roti said he could not comment on the investigation.

Charmaine Keeton, the principal of Hallett, a magnet school that recently relocated from outside Denver, was eligible for a $6,000 bonus in the 2010-11 school year, based on the school’s test performance. She could not be reached for comment.

DPS offers a number of financial incentives to teachers and principals for top performance in several measures, including scores on state standardized tests.

Beach Court’s high scores netted Roti bonuses of at least $6,000 for the 2008-09 school year and again for the 2009-10 school year. During those years, his salary was around $90,000.

In the 2010-11 school year, Beach Court achieved “distinguished” status, the district’s highest ranking, which qualified Roti for a $10,000 bonus. Also that year, Beach Court was one of three Denver schools to win top honors in the nationwide EPIC program, a distinction that carries with it a $10,000 award to the principal.

The EPIC program, which is operated by a New York-based nonprofit, “identifies urban schools driving the highest student achievement gains … and then awards the school leaders and teachers for sharing the practices that lead to the gains.”

Boasberg said the district’s intense scrutiny of testing practices did not stem from any accusations.

“Last fall, when we saw what was going on in other cities, we said, ‘We’ve got a bit of a duty here to really look.’ We had heard no allegations or rumors,” he said.

The district’s analysis, which Boasberg described as exhaustive, began well before students took TCAP tests this spring.

By the time TCAP tests — known as CSAP until this year — were handed out to students, new security procedures were in place.

Each Denver school still has a designated site assessment leader, often a teacher, who is in charge of distributing and collecting the tests each day over the three-week period they are administered. At the end of each day, that person locks up the test booklets, and no one else in the school is allowed to have access to them, said the site leader of one school, who asked not to be identified. When the testing period is over, the district comes and picks up the tests.

In the past, part of the site leader’s job included making sure test answers were clear, he said.

“You used to be able to go through the book. You could go back and clean up erasures,” to make sure there was no confusion over which answer the student intended, he said. “The district said we couldn’t do that this year.”

The new security procedures also included proctors at “a couple dozen schools,” said Boasberg.

According to district data, 96 percent of Beach Court’s 363 students enrolled as of October lived in households needy enough to qualify for federal assistance to buy lunch. At Hallett, 89 percent of students qualify for lunch assistance. Typically, living in poverty and the stresses that puts on families are considered hurdles to academic achievement.

Nevertheless, over the past five years, test scores at Beach Court had soared. Preliminary third-grade reading scores for the 2011-12 school year, the only scores released by the state so far, show that the number of Beach Court students who were reading at grade level or better dropped to 40 percent from 78 percent in 2010-11.

Nevertheless, several former teachers and educators who have worked with the school said Wednesday they were stunned by the accusations.

Lorraine Diaz, who retired in 2008 after teaching at Beach Court, described the teachers there as “awesome.”

“The teachers had a lot of integrity and worked really hard to get their kids to do their best,” Diaz said.

Karen Duonnolo, a former reading specialist at the school, said struggling kids got a lot of help early — at least until funding for some of the reading programs was cut.

Karen Augé

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  • comment avatar Lana May 17, 2012

    if it’s true, this just makes me sad. 🙁

  • comment avatar MtnsJohn May 17, 2012

    Traffic cops increase citations so give the Traffic Bureau captain a bonus?

    House fires in town decrease so hand out extra money to the fire chief?

    Since when is doing well the job a public servant was hired for worthy of extra bucks at taxpayer expense? Seems it tends to lower the bar for just acceptable performance and, for some, increases the temptation to act unethically.

    The public sector should not be trying to mimic the private. If the stockholders vote to give a CEO a bonus paid for by them, then great. For a school superintendent to have to provide bonuses to school principals to try to get them to do the job they were hired for (and paid for by taxpayers), is ridiculous.

  • comment avatar Peter C May 17, 2012

    This is not cool. I hope Roti is cleared but if he isn’t….

  • comment avatar Rich May 17, 2012

    1. Most Principals do not get a bonus based on test scores.

    2. If you think a bonus will motivate principals to cheat, wait until SB191 takes effect and a principal can be fired any year and teachers can lose their tenure based on test scores. Avoiding unemployment is a bigger motivator than a bonus.

    When SB191 takes effect, the state will compare teachers’ student growth to each other. Those in the bottom half of growth may face losing their tenure. Lets say that this fear causes 1/6 teachers cheat on the test by forcing kids to do problems they skipped or by telling the kids that their response is not long enough. Now, to get in the top half of teachers, you need to be in top 2/6 (or 33%)…..which will put pressure on more teachers to be unethical.

    When you have high stakes testing that places the risk of unemployent for poor performance on the test proctors (the teachers/ principal), don’t be surprised when more stories like this surface.

  • comment avatar Mads May 17, 2012

    This is what the district wanted, fought for, and bargained with the union for…it’s called “pro-comp.” You don’t get raises, you get a “bonus” for high test scores. It never adds to your salary…one year you get it, the next year, you don’t. The traditional “salary schedule” is no longer a part of the pay plan like in all the other major metro districts. If you don’t get high scores, your salary never goes up. Cheating is never the answer, but maybe the district should look at what is wrong with this model since none of the people involved in making it are no longer in the district.

  • comment avatar MtnsJohn May 17, 2012

    I was not aware of that. I am all for merit pay for those truly meriting a raise based on measurable performance. Mere “time in grade” is never a good reason for compensation increases in the public sector.

  • comment avatar Telaya May 17, 2012

    My son goes to Hallet and despite the investigation that is going on he has received a WONDERFUL education and I’ve gotten nothing but support from the principal. I will speak out for her if NOBODY else does.

  • comment avatar Kimberly May 17, 2012

    Yikes! I wouldn’t want to be the Principal right now.But there is such pressure on school districts to perform well , that it can lead to misdoings. I bet there are other schools or districts that will show the same thing, if they took a closer look.

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