Rene X. Diaz presents his findings on testing irregularities at Wade Carpenter Middle School during a school board meeting Monday.

It wasn’t the teachers, it wasn’t the students and it wasn’t district officials. So, who did cheat on the AIMS tests at Wade Carpenter Middle School beginning as far back as 2010?

An independent investigator hired to look into the matter presented his findings on Monday to the Nogales Unified School District governing board. He cited circumstantial evidence he uncovered that pointed to a person or persons in the school’s higher echelons.

Two of those, Maria Chavez, library media specialist and former dean of students, and guidance counselor Edith Fajardo, raised further suspicion by invoking their right to remain silent. The women, who were responsible for test administration, initially interviewed with the investigator, Rene X. Diaz. But when Diaz asked to meet with them for follow-up questions, he said, they refused in writing on the grounds that the matter was now under criminal investigation.

However, while the Arizona Department of Education referred its investigation of WCMS and six other schools to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office in May, there is still no known criminal investigation. Diaz was hired by NUSD, not by the ADE or AG’s Office, and the district didn’t refer his report to the AG’s Office until after he presented it (see related story).

“The refusal of the library media specialist and the counselor to be re-interviewed because of reports of on-going criminal investigation is curious if they were telling the truth and had nothing to hide,” Diaz wrote in a report to the NUSD board.

Chavez and Fajardo weren’t the only ones who got defensive. When Diaz interviewed Principal Liza Montiel, he said, it “started out with her attempting to control the interview by asking me questions about my background and relationship to district personnel, which was clearly not her role or the purpose of the interview.”

Her demeanor was in contrast to that of most of the 43 witnesses Diaz interviewed, he said, noting that others “were very helpful and cooperative in answering my questions and assisted me in understanding the roles and responsibilities of WCMS staff and testing procedures.”

Culture of fear

Diaz also interviewed the assistant principal, current and former teachers, clerical staff, custodians, two former WCMS students, a former NHS principal and NUSD superintendent. Regarding morale, he said, the fear of retribution among some of those interviewed was “palpable.” At one point, Diaz became concerned himself and searched for a listening device under the table and got down on his knees to look into a vent in the wall, he told the board at Monday’s meeting.

As a result of an Arizona Department of Education review of the 2014 AIMS tests at WCMS in February, about 20 percent of the school’s seventh-grade 2014 Spring AIMS tests were invalidated and the school’s grade later dropped from A+ to a B.

The invalidation of the tests was based on a “disproportionate” number of wrong-to-right erasures, which dramatically exceeded the statewide average. At WCMS, 23 percent of seventh-grade students’ reading tests and 18 percent of math tests exceeded that threshold, compared with 0.006 percent of seventh-grade students statewide.

ADE directed the school district to conduct a comprehensive investigation to find out how these irregularities occurred, correct any problems and make necessary changes to avoid a repeat. The agency also recommended the district take appropriate action against anyone linked to the cheating. Board members said Monday, however, that they have gone as far as they will, and voted to refer the matter to the AG’s Office.

Student performance

Based on Diaz’s review of information provided by ADE, he found that many of the WCMS students who scored a “meets” or “exceeds” on the 2014 AIMS tests received a D or an F in their corresponding class for the spring semester.

“For example, six students whose scores were invalidated received an ‘exceeds’ and 19 students whose scores were invalidated received a ‘meets’ on the mathematics portion of the AIMS that year. Yet, they received a final letter grade of a D or F in their mathematics course,” he said. “As a former teacher, principal and superintendent … I found the discrepancy notable and further evidence that manipulation occurred.

“Based upon my professional experience, it would be highly unlikely that these students would have done so poorly in class and still have received a ‘meets’ or ‘exceeds’ in the mathematics portion of AIMS,” he said.

An analysis by then-Nogales High School Principal Judith Mendoza-Jimenez of students who transitioned from both Desert Shadows and Wade Carpenter middle schools showed that 31 WCMS students received “meets” in math in the 2012 AIMS tests, yet earned an F or D in the first five weeks in Algebra I of their freshmen year. Also, 42 WCMS students received “exceeds” in math, yet they earned an F or D in Algebra I. This contrasts with the 41 Desert Shadows students who received “exceeds” in math who were earning an A or B in the first five weeks.

“The academic performance of the incoming ninth graders from WCMS did not reflect the level of achievement that the AIMS results promised,” Diaz said.

“Even though WCMS students received an ‘exceeds’ on AIMS reading, their eighth grade language arts teachers generally did not recommend them for Honors English at NHS,” he noted in his report

In the 2011 AIMS test results, four WCMS students went from “Falls Far Below” in their sixth grade score to “exceeds” in their seventh-grade score but were earning an F or D in their eighth-grade algebra class, Diaz said.

Coordinated effort

Diaz concluded that given the number of erasures and that many of the answers to the same questions were erased, “There had to be some sort of coordinated effort. The person(s) who changed the answers had to know what the correct answers were.

“There is no definitive answer to who was responsible for the irregularities and manipulation, but the evidence is that it was not the students, (four teachers who oversaw the test-taking), or district-level administrators,” Diaz said. Whoever manipulated the tests “had to have access to the AIMS answer sheets over a sustained period of time,” he said.

This rules out the teachers, but not Fajardo and Chavez. “Both of these employees oversaw the distribution, collection and storage of all the AIMS answer sheets for all grades in 2014,” with assistance from school secretary Carolina Galbriath, Diaz noted.

He found it was “highly unlikely” students could have coordinated the erasures from wrong-to-right on 43 common test items in reading and 50 common items in math. “This would have required very sophisticated coordination, knowledge of which answers to change and opportunity, which would not be expected from seventh-graders,” he said.

The students were separated throughout the school campus during the test week. ADE also came to the conclusion that the irregularities were caused by “adult intervention,” Diaz noted.

“Some of those interviewed speculated … that perhaps the district-level administration had manipulated the test answers to discredit the WCMS administration,” he said. “I could find no evidence of that. Moreover, if that (was) true, wouldn’t it have been more likely that the answers would have been changed from right-to-wrong?”

At least for the 2014 tests, “the persons who would have had the most opportunity to change answers were the personnel who had direct access to the AIMS testing materials and the room in the WCMS Library where the answer sheets were kept for an extended time after the answer sheets were turned in. These were the principal, the assistant principal, the library media specialist, the school counselor, the school computer technician and the school secretary,” he said.

However, all denied having any role or knowledge of manipulations, Diaz said.

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