In letters, former Orono principal defends ‘testing irregularities,’ teachers call him ‘intense and intimidating’

Posted Oct. 07, 2012, at 5:33 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 08, 2012, at 8:14 a.m.
Robert Lucy
Robert Lucy

BANGOR, Maine — A series of letters sent to the Department of Education reveals that some teachers and staff at Orono Middle School in 2011 felt pressured by their “often intense and intimidating” principal to have special education students revisit and alter standardized tests after they had been handed in and boxed up.

Robert Lucy, the former principal who now serves as assistant superintendent of the Bangor school system, denied having ever told teachers to knowingly violate testing rules.

In response to a Bangor Daily News Freedom of Access Act request, the Department of Education released documents on Oct. 5 related to its investigation into “testing irregularities” at Orono Middle School during 2011 New England Common Assessment Program testing.

“I was feeling extreme pressure from Mr. Lucy to not only re-administer and complete the tests, but to also ensure that I was getting the most out of my students as I could,” one teacher reported to the department.

Included in the documents are letters Lucy wrote to Department of Education officials and his then-superintendent during the department’s investigation.

“It was never my intention for someone to feel pressure to do something other than what was appropriate and consistent with testing procedures,” Lucy wrote to RSU 26 Superintendent Douglas Smith on Oct. 31, 2011.

Less than a month later, the Department of Education finished a report that found there was “incontrovertible evidence that some students revisited the NECAP test after the time permitted either by their [Individualized Education Program] accommodations or for makeup testing” that are “clearly stated” in testing manuals.

Lucy has declined repeated requests for interviews, including one on Sunday.

The Bangor School District placed Lucy on paid administrative leave on Sept. 19, the day after the BDN published a story about the Department of Education’s report on the testing violations. Superintendent Betsy Webb has said she was not aware of the testing investigation prior to hiring Lucy in May and that he will remain on leave until the school department completes its own review of the Orono Middle School testing complaints. Lucy had been Orono Middle School’s principal for 12 years.

Webb said Friday that the school district has hired attorney Daniel Stockford of Lewiston to gather and review materials related to the investigation and provide his findings to Webb.

“I will make a determination, and it will be at that point when I decide whether to bring it to the school committee,” Webb said, adding that the school committee would not be updated until the end of the investigation because it needs to remain impartial during the process.

She said she has no timeline on how long the investigation might take and that she has not yet seen any documents associated with Stockford’s investigation.

The documents the Department of Education received from school staff for its review of the testing irregularities show some staff members felt they were pushed to re-administer tests and unwittingly break testing regulations.

In a letter to Douglas Smith, Sharon Brady, the director of special services for RSU 26, said two special education teachers and the school’s testing coordinator came to her after NECAP testing last year to complain about Lucy’s actions.

“My two teachers report that Mr. Lucy is often intense and intimidating toward them, specifically around schoolwide testing results,” Brady wrote. “[The teachers and testing coordinator] agreed that Mr. Lucy has lost his perspective and is completely obsessed with testing scores and the school’s image.”

Two months before the 2011 testing, Orono Middle School was recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School. That award recognizes high academic performance and closing achievement gaps.

Brady also states that the school’s testing coordinator told her 2011 was the third year in which Lucy reviewed test booklets, and each year she attempted to inform him he was not allowed to do so. The letter does not state whether Lucy directed students to add answers following testing sessions in those years.

The testing coordinator makes no mention of previous years’ incidents in her letters and notes provided by the Department of Education regarding the 2011 testing.

The BDN is not naming the staff members involved because they have expressed fear of retaliation.

Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin has said the department does not have any records of any assessment investigations involving Lucy before 2011. The department had not planned to look into previous years’ testing because the complaint it received and investigated involved only the 2011 tests, he has said.

On Oct. 18, 2011, Lucy approached one of the teachers about “reintroducing” one of the writing sections of a test to a student, according to a teacher’s letter. The teacher said that made her “uneasy.” Two days later, Lucy approached the same teacher again.

“His repeated discussions with me led me to feel pressured to have [the student] redo the testing,” the teacher wrote.

During the testing period, Lucy reviewed test booklets that had been boxed and left in his office for safekeeping, according to documents sent to the Department of Education. The tests were scheduled to be shipped on Oct. 26.

On Monday, Oct. 24, Lucy approached the testing coordinator and a second teacher about the tests. In his office, Lucy had spread the tests out on the table, placing sticky notes containing the numbers of questions that were left blank or he felt were unsatisfactory, according to the coordinator.

For example, Lucy said he saw some missing and duplicated answers, as well a section where a student wrote “I don’t know” on each question.

The teachers reported that Lucy directed them to have students revisit those questions. The teachers and testing coordinator said they resisted re-administering the tests at first, but eventually did as the principal asked.

One teacher said Lucy told them “that it was not acceptable for [a student] to not do as well on this year’s NECAP test as he did last year.” Both teachers and the testing coordinator Lucy spoke with described the conversations as “intense.” One of the two teachers cried after her meeting with Lucy, according to Brady’s letter.

The test coordinator contacted Susan Smith, who at the time was NECAP coordinator for the state, on Oct. 24 to ask for clarification. Smith has since retired.

Smith sent a response quoting the testing manual, which states that test administrators may not look through the booklets to view responses and that only absent students or students who become ill during testing are allowed to finish test sessions after their books are passed in.

In an explanation to Susan Smith, Lucy wrote that he was not looking at the booklets to review student answers, but rather to perform duties required of the principal or test coordinator before sending away tests.

Those duties include making sure all test materials have been turned in, verifying the front cover has the appropriate student information, checking the second page and making sure the books are in good condition and free of loose paper. He said that he noticed missing answers during that process. Reviewing answers and recommending make-up sessions is not a principal or test coordinator duty that appears on the list.

“I felt it was part of my responsibility as principal/co-test coordinator,” Lucy wrote.

Lucy argued in several letters that he is not a “test administrator” and said he never told teachers or the testing coordinator “to do anything that knowingly violated NECAP testing protocols,” but rather asked the teachers to see whether there were any accommodations or absences that might allow the students to get a chance to complete parts of the test. The teachers and coordinator each stated that they were asked directly and “pressured” into holding makeup sessions for the students that didn’t follow procedure.

Lucy told the testing coordinator that he believed students were absent during certain testing sessions, but after the tests were readministered, the coordinator found that school records didn’t record absences in several cases.

The coordinator reported to the department that she was concerned about affected students officially listed as present when the principal claimed they were absent during testing, according to the Department of Education’s report.

“The office sheets did not show these students absent,” she said in the report. “I then approached my principal again to inquire why their names were missing on the attendance reports. That is when he told me that the secretary ‘doesn’t always get it right’ because there is a lot of ‘coming and going’ and he assured me they were absent.”

In letters to Susan Smith and Douglas Smith, Lucy cited one example from a couple of years ago in which a student was absent from school during the reading section of the NECAP and her test booklet was submitted without her getting a chance to take a makeup. Lucy argued that he was trying to avoid those types of situations by reviewing the test booklets for missed questions and sections.

None of the 2011 tests were revisited during “permitted makeup sessions,” the department found.

“I wanted to make sure we did everything as a school we possibly could do legally to ensure the NECAP testing reflected what [students] knew and could do in the subject areas of reading and math,” Lucy wrote.

The Principal and Test Coordinator Manual for NECAP states: “Under no circumstances are students to be prompted to revise, edit or complete any test questions during or after testing. Once a student has completed a session and has handed in his or her student answer booklet, test administrators may not look through the booklets to view student responses.”

That message is repeated in a “reminder” printed on multiple pages throughout the manual.

As a result of its investigation, the Department of Education directed Lucy, test administrators, the test coordinator and special education director to undergo training prior to the next NECAP test, which is currently under way. The department also invalidated scores for some answers on four students’ tests and the entire test of one student.

The department forwarded information from the investigation to its Office of Certification for review. The department cannot comment on an individual’s certification status unless some action is taken and their status changes, according to Connerty-Marin, who said he could not comment on Lucy’s certification status.

Lucy maintained in his letters that he didn’t believe he overstepped his bounds and duties as principal and co-test coordinator, and that he was trying to act in the best interest of his students and school.

“I try to convey high expectations for learning to all of our school community,” Lucy wrote to Smith, “but I am not doing that because of my self-worth or our school image, but rather to try and ensure each student is given the opportunity to realize their greatest potential.”

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