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Banners are posted this week at Heidelberg Elementary School to help motivate students for tests. / Greg Jenson, The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger

JACKSON, Miss. -- Students whose high test scores sparked the meteoric rise of a Clarksdale, Miss., elementary school from an F- to an A-rated institution in just two years have seen their academic levels plummet since leaving, prompting questions about the validity of those earlier scores.

When Oakhurst Intermediate School welcomed rising fifth- and sixth-graders from Heidelberg Elementary School in August, teachers immediately recognized a problem. Many of the children who had tested above grade-level on the May 2013 Mississippi Curriculum Test now could barely read or do basic math.

On their first nine-week assessment in October, some of those same students failed altogether, according to data obtained by The Clarion-Ledger.

The schools are part of the Clarksdale Municipal School District, a district of some 3,115 students in the Delta.

"The irregularities are very clear," said Oakhurst teacher Alberto Aquino. "I am not saying there is cheating going on (at Heidelberg). I am saying that the scores are not matching up, and every teacher in this school knows it. Every teacher in this district knows it."

The Mississippi Department of Education said Wednesday it will launch an investigation into cheating allegations.

"We take allegations of cheating or testing irregularities seriously because ultimately such behavior is a disservice to students and their parents," said Carey Wright, state superintendent of education.

Clarksdale Municipal School District Superintendent Dennis Dupree said he's not worried.

"If the state department comes in and investigates, let them," he said. "They won't find anything."

He also vowed to conduct his own investigation, but not into the cheating allegations; Dupree wants to know who gave student test data to The Clarion-Ledger.

In a meeting Wednesday at Oakhurst Intermediate School, Dupree reportedly threatened teachers with job loss and lawsuits if he found out any of them helped the newspaper with its reporting.

Heidelberg Principal Lowanda Tyler-Jones denies any cheating occurred on the Mississippi Curriculum Test, called the MCT2. She attributes her students' success to the positive attitude and rigorous teaching that occurs at her school, which this year runs from pre-kindergarten to fourth grade.

If there's a problem, she said, it's at the intermediate school.

Oakhurst used to be a junior high school but was reorganized this academic year to serve all the district's fifth- and sixth-graders, who come from its five elementary schools.

Eighty-three of those students came from Heidelberg. Of them, 42 had scored advanced in reading and 41 had scored advanced in math on last year's MCT2s, data show. Advanced is the highest achievement level possible and indicates a student performs above grade level.

But when they were assessed three months later, only six of these advanced Heidelberg students tested on or above last year's grade level for reading and 23 for math.

Some tested two or three grade levels below where they should have performed, including one sixth-grader who was reading on a first-grade level despite having achieved one of the best scores in his class on the MCT2 in English language arts.

The same child had the worst possible score - minimal minus - on his first nine-week reading assessment at Oakhurst.

One former Heidelberg student told The Clarion-Ledger her English teacher, Frances Smith, had read the answers aloud to the class during testing last year.

"She would say, 'C for cat. D for dog. B for ball. A for apple,'" the now sixth-grade Oakhurst student said, describing how Smith provided students the correct multiple-choice response to each question.

Smith, who now teaches at Oakhurst, denies any knowledge of cheating in her class or any other class at Heidelberg.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: State to probe cheating allegations at Miss. school

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