Their accusers: One or more math teachers at the district’s other middle school, Twin Oaks, directly across the street.
The Twin Oaks teachers even went so far as to call a local TV station to cover the story, but they wouldn’t reveal their names. “How we found out about it is we received a call from the local news media,” said Jeff Holmberg, assistant superintendent of the Prior Lake-Savage district.
The teachers alleged that while giving students extra credit for showing their work on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs), Hidden Oaks teachers were also looking at calculations on the students’ discarded scratch paper and figuring out the test questions, which are a closely guarded secret.
Hidden Oaks teachers had tacked on the extra credit to students’ regular math grades for two years in a row, so the idea was that teachers were somehow teaching students the exact concepts on the test, giving them a leg up.
A bit of circumstantial evidence: Hidden Oaks students scored 11 points higher on the math MCAs in 2013 than Twin Oaks students did, despite the schools’ proximity and similar demographics.
The district launched an investigation, interviewing teachers and checking to be sure that they had gone through the proper Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) training for proctoring the MCAs.
District officials, including Holmberg, determined that everyone had been trained appropriately and that the paper was being destroyed in a timely manner, not studied. “We’ve completed our investigation,” he said. “We haven’t found any wrongdoing.”
But with teachers publicly accusing their colleagues of cheating, there may be some wounds to heal. “Certainly, there’s a need to rebuild and repair some relationships these next several weeks,” Holmberg said.
Teachers from both schools declined to be interviewed for this story.
Security a concern
The policy of encouraging students to “take their time, slow down and solve the problem” by using scratch paper and giving extra credit for handing in that paper was also deemed “perfectly appropriate,” Holmberg said.
The district submitted all investigation materials to the state at the end of last month.
“Certainly, testing security is very important to us,” said Josh Collins, spokesman for MDE.
Each year, MDE receives “testing security notifications” related to a variety of MCA concerns, he said. Everything from a poster on the wall related to a math concept to someone leaving the room to throw up during the test must be reported, he said.
The rules surrounding the MCAs are “very complex” and addressed in a 300-page procedures manual, he said.
But MDE was satisfied with the district’s investigation. “We’re drafting basically an ‘issue closed’ letter,” Collins said.
Teachers at Hidden Oaks took the allegations seriously, Holmberg said. “Their awareness was certainly heightened … after understanding the nature of the concern,” he said. “I think the allegation here caught people off guard.”
Holmberg said that teachers at both schools, including math teachers, frequently work together to plan curricula and have been doing so for several years. And they have held joint meetings since this issue came up, he added.
“It’s interesting,” he said. “If there’s animosity between the schools, I’m not hearing that.”
But next year, Holmberg said there’s a “strong likelihood” that Hidden Oaks will no longer offer extra credit for showing work on the MCAs.
Even before this incident, the district was reviewing its assessment and grading practices, trying to make them more uniform. In addition, research shows that extra credit is most effective when it’s directly related to content taught in the class, he said.
However, students will still be encouraged to use scratch paper, he said.