Third- and fourth-graders at Savage Elementary School in Belleville did really well on the math section of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress – M-STEP – last year.
So well, in fact, school district administrators were a little confused.
The M-STEP is designed to be harder than earlier state tests, and students took it for the first time last school year.
But Savage Elementary kids did way better on the M-STEP than they did on the previous test. On the M-STEP, 90% of third- and fourth-graders tested proficient in math. The year before, just 55.9% of third-graders and 58.6% of fourth-graders did.
The scores were similar just about across the board. In fact, the school district says Savage Elementary did better than some schools that have only gifted and talented kids.
So Van Buren Public School administrators asked the Michigan Department of Education to take a look at the scores, too.
And when the state wrote back, they were worried. "These anomalies are highly unlikely due to chance alone," said Jason Kolb, a test security specialist with the state.
The state asked the district to look into it. So the district hired a law firm, Collins & Blaha, to investigate.
In a report sent Dec. 18 of last year, attorneys concluded that "it is clear that some level of 'coaching' did occur" from teachers to students, though it's "unknown how widespread this may have been at Savage or how many students were impacted ..."
When investigators interviewed students about teacher conduct during testing, students said teachers, "did the math problem when he didn't know;" "(Teacher) would check problems and told student if he had it right or wrong;" "(Teacher) would check questions and would tell students the ones to fix."
Meanwhile, two staff members told investigators they did give some level of assistance during the test, while "other staff members denied any level of coaching."
But the investigation gets a little murkier when it comes to what teachers did and didn't know about how much assistance they were allowed to give.
This was the first year the M-STEP was given statewide, and teachers had to meet a lot of different requirements in terms of setup and online administration.
Investigators found most Savage staff members didn't know they were also supposed to read something called the Assessment Integrity Guide, which needs to be downloaded from the state website.
That guide tells teachers not to give students assistance "by any direct or indirect means," including coaching before or during the tests.
And the former Savage principal, who refused to be interviewed by the district's investigators, apparently didn't turn in forms that were supposed to be signed by teachers, verifying they had in fact read the Assessment Integrity Guide.
When asked about those verification forms, "only one Savage staff member who was interviewed had a clear memory of signing such a form," according to the investigator's report.
But teachers' accounts of what level of assistance they did or didn't give students, were often directly contradicted by what students told investigators, the report found.
One teacher said they did tell students to "scroll up" to see "if every question was answered" at the end of the test. But students said that teacher "did a math problem for me when [I] didn't know how" and "went back and helped him with questions he did not know."
Superintendent Michael Van Tassel says when he got the investigators' report, "I couldn't believe it. I mean, there's one of these potential teachers – several of them – that I've known for quite a while. And trying to understand why it may have happened, or what was going on in people's minds, is especially difficult."
Van Tassel won't say how many teachers have been suspended because the disciplinary process is still playing out, and he says he wants to respect their privacy.
"But it's a horrible situation for everyone involved. Everyone involved. So I have no doubt that children are confused, to say the least."
The state is throwing out Savage Elementary's M-STEP scores for the 2014-2015 year.
On Tuesday, Marcus Hosman, president of the Van Buren Education Association, said he'd need to reserve comment until later.
UPDATE: Some parents have compiled a list of questions about the district's investigation and findings regarding the M-STEP scores at Savage Elementary. "I, and a bunch of my fellow parents, were very disturbed by the interview and article on Michael Van Tassel and the Savage Elementary cheating scandal," Andrea VanDenBergh wrote in an email Wednesday night. "We have several questions about this 'investigation' and believe it is seriously flawed." VanDenBergh also linked to a Facebook page calling for Superintendent Van Tassel's "resignation or termination."