NASHVILLE, Tennessee—An investigation is raising questions about the integrity of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools test scores that showed proficiency levels among its students in grade 9 through 12 who took Algebra I doubled from 28 percent in 2010 to 56 percent in 2015.
At Pearl-Cohn High School, one of 25 high schools serving the 20,525 students enrolled in grades 9 through 12 in the Metropolitan Nashville School District (in academic year 2013-2014), one whistle blower, former school counselor and current Metro teacher Kelly Brown, has stepped forward. Brown says she was instructed to pull students from the Algebra I class prior to the administration of the end-of-class exams (EOC).
As Brown and Shana West, a second whistle blower who works elsewhere in MNPS explained to NewsChannel 5:
“When I hear those stories [about student test scores in Metro Nashville improving], it makes me angry because I know they are not true,” said Kelly Brown, a Metro school teacher who once served on the district’s school counseling leadership team.
Guidance counselor Shana West agreed.
“True gains would involve making sure that every student tested,” she said.
Now, these current Metro school employees are risking it all to blow the whistle on a testing system that, they say, hides the students who need help the most — all to make the schools’ test scores look better.
“This is manipulating data. This is making the test results different from what they would have been,” Brown said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, “It’s rigging the game?”
“Yeah, exactly,” she answered.
Tennessee State Representative Rick Womick (R-Rockvale) told WWTN Radio’s Ralph Bristol Tuesday morning that he has received approval from Speaker of the House Beth Harwell to hold hearings of the House Education Committee to determine if any laws have been violated.
“Speaker Beth Harwell and Education Committee Chairman Harry Brooks have both agreed and have authorized a special study by elected members of the House Education Committee, and this will take place sometime in early December,” Womick told Bristol.
Here’s a partial transcript of that interview:
Bristol: The committee is going to offer people who testify some kind of special immunity, is that correct?
Womick: That is correct. I just finished the letter yesterday. Rep Brooks is going to take a look at it.
Basically what the letter says is that of course, that the Tennessee Code Annotated 49-6-6001 which requires the End of Course exams be taken. Any individuals who have information regarding the removal of those students from those End of Course exams by Nashville Public Schools, we’re going to offer them protection under Tennessee Whistleblower law, which is 80-50-116 to come in and provide testimony or to testify before the House Study. So that letter’s going to be going out, with the attachments to it will be the actual law and the supporting parts of the code that support the whistleblower laws.
Bristol: Was that necessary to protect these two ladies or is it necessary to protect other potential witnesses?
Womick: It’s for everybody. It’s not only going to be for these two ladies but also for anybody else that wants to come forward. My understanding is that there are several teachers and possibly a few principals that will be willing to come forward. And these are from not just their school at Pearl-Cohn, but also other schools in Metro Nashville. The teachers and counselors and other principals would like to come forward but they’re scared to because they’re afraid they’re going to be reprimanded from the School District or from the State. This will provide that protection. It’s almost like immunity.
Bristol: If these hearings, which are going to appear a lot like a trail almost discover and prove some actions took place that violated the law that you quoted…what’s the appropriate consequence of this?
Womick: There’s two. One of them we’re working on right now, that is to get the comptroller back involved and have them go directly and investigate [Metro] Nashville Public Schools. There’s federal money involved. There’s state money involved. They’re an auditing arm of the state government. They need to be involved to find out what’s going on.
The second one, if we do find this [may involve a violation of law], then we will be sending a letter to the attorney general of the state and letting him know exactly what we found and that we feel he needs to investigate and possibly indict some of these folks on criminal charges.
Bristol: Is this much more serious than [someone losing their job]?
Womick: This is much more serious. There’s a recent example, I believe it was a superintendent in El Paso, Texas, and they pulled this same stunt. With federal money involved, and state money involved, and in violation of state law which requires these end-of-course examinations, these individuals could be looking at jail time, yes.
Bristol: How sure are you, based on what you’ve seen, that you are going to be able to demonstrate fairly clearly that the state law was violated?
Womick: The documentation and the evidence Ms. West and Ms. Kelly Brown have supplied and given to us …it’s fact. You see the students being taken out in the second semester weeks prior to the end-of-course exam. That is a direct violation of state law. The evidence [of this] …particularly at the central office [of MNPS] authorizes and pushes this upon the principals and the counselors . That’s who the Attorney General will be going after. And again, those who come out and speak out will be protected by the Whistleblower Law.
Such remarkable improvement in Algebra I proficiency as claimed by MNPS might be expected to generate interest at a national level to determine how MNPS achieved such a significant instructional result in the classroom. But Breitbart News has found there is no rush among other Algebra teachers across the country to observe the stellar reported results achieved in MNPS.
Over the same period, 2010 to 2015, proficiency in English 1 increased from 48 percent to 63 percent and English 2 increased from 47 percent to 56 percent. From 2012 to 2015, proficiency in Algebra 2 skyrocketed from 17 percent to 40 percent.
Breitbart News has asked MNPS to provide the numerator (the actual number of Algebra I proficient students) and the denominator (the actual number of students who took the Algebra I EOC test) for each of the six years from 2010 to 2015 on which the dramatic proficiency ratings were calculated, increasing from 28 percent in 2010, to 37 percent in 2011, 41 percent in 2012, 51 percent in 2013, 47 percent in 2014, and 56 percent in 2015.
“We are doing a deep dig into our data to find the answers to the questions raised by recent reporting. We are now including your questions and will have a response for you soon. When dealing with this much data and the analysis it requires, we can’t rush it,” MNPS spokesperson Joseph Bass tells Breitbart News.
But West and Brown, the two whistle blowers who are currently teachers within MNPS, claim these dramatic improvements in test scores are not the result of classroom improvements, but instead of removing lower performing students from the test itself.
The allegation is the test scores have improved because while the numerator (the number of proficient students) remains the same, the denominator (the number of enrolled students at the beginning of the year who took the EOC test at the end of the year) has been artificially lowered as an unpublicized policy of the Metropolitan Nashville Public School System.
In the report that aired last week on News Channel 5, investigative journalist Phil Williams found:
In Tennessee, high schools are judged largely on the percentage of students who score proficient or advanced on End-of-Course [EOC] exams in seven subjects — three years of English, two years of Algebra, as well as biology and chemistry.
In 2013-2014, [Kelly] Brown was the lead counselor at Pearl-Cohn, the lowest-performing high school in the city of Nashville that was facing the potential for a state takeover.
“We were pretty much under the gun to get our scores up. It was kind of a do-or-die thing,” she recalled.
Pearl-Cohn has tried to carve a niche for itself as an entertainment magnet school.
But in April 2014, Brown said her principal brought her a list of students who needed to be pulled from classes — just a few weeks before those critical End-of-Course exams.
“A lot of them were, yes, failing – but not by much. There were some that were actually passing,” Brown said.
“They were actually passing?” we asked
“And they were pulled from the class?”
When Brown looked at their files, she discovered that the students who were pulled had not done well on a round of practice tests — tests that are supposed to predict how well they’ll perform on their exams.
“All of these students, the ones that got pulled, have that in common: they did not perform well on the predictive tests,” she insisted.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, “Why would they do that?”
“The only reason is because they want their scores to go up. That’s the only reason.”
MNPS offered this response to NewsChannel 5:
NewsChannel 5 Investigates requested that a Metro Schools official sit down to answer our question.
Instead, they sent us a written statement, saying that they had begun an internal review as a result of the questions we had asked.
“Records reviewed to date indicate that there is no evidence of systematic avoidance of EOC exams,” the statement said.
That research uncovered “a relatively small number of students” who did not take those state-mandated tests, but those cases “appear to be spread out and not unusually high for any particular school.”
Breitbart News asked the Tennessee State Department of Education for comment, but has not yet received a response.
One national organization that has worked with MNPS “for some time” is also choosing not to comment.
“Altho[ugh] we’ve worked w/MNPS for some time, we’ll have to pass on the opportunity to comment,” Phil Gloudemans, Director of Communications at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, emailed Breitbart News when asked for comment.