Commission sides with newspaper in school test-cheating probe

GREENWOOD — The Mississippi Ethics Commission has sided with the Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper and says the state Department of Education should hand over documents from any probe of possible cheating on achievement tests in Leflore County.

In a non-binding opinion issued last Friday, the Ethics Commission agreed with the newspaper that such documents are public records.

The Commonwealth reported it received a copy of the opinion on Tuesday.

Quentin Ransburg, director of the Office for Reporting at the Department of Education, told the paper that the department will comply with the opinion within seven days.

The Commonwealth filed a request with the Department of Education in April to see if any such records existed related to state-mandated tests given by the Leflore County School District. The newspaper’s request was prompted by a nationwide investigation into suspicious test scores conducted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In Leflore County, during the tenure of former Superintendent Jean Hall, more than 14 percent of the classes were flagged for variations on their test scores beyond the norm in 2008, the third highest of the 56 Mississippi school districts included in the Atlanta newspaper’s analysis. In 2010, the percentage hit almost 23 percent, the highest rate in the state sampling.

The newspaper filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission in early May after the Department of Education, citing state and federal confidentiality laws, denied the Commonwealth’s request for pertinent records from 2008 to 2012.

In its response to the Ethics Commission, the Department of Education acknowledged that it has a report provided by the Leflore County School District concerning investigation of possible testing irregularities.

The Department of Education claimed that the report pertains to one student and that the student’s identity could be “reasonably ascertainable” even with his or her name redacted. The Department of Education also said it denied the newspaper’s request for erasure analysis reports, which the state uses to detect cheating, because they are grouped according to teacher name and their release could breach student confidentiality.

The Ethics Commission disagreed. Its opinion stated that the Federal Education and Privacy Act allows for release of education records, without consent of the students or their parents, if “personally identifiable information” is removed.

It also agreed with the Commonwealth that the Department of Education did not follow the Public Records Act when it took longer than the seven working days the statute allows for a public body to produce or deny a request for records.

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