The state Department of Education has ordered Pinellas County school officials to investigate possible cheating on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test at an elementary magnet school in St. Petersburg.
This is the first time in the 16-year history of school grades in Florida that the department has withheld a Pinellas school's grade so a full investigation into cheating could take place, a district official said.
At Bay Point Elementary, a large number of fourth-grade students turned in math tests that were so similar as to be statistically improbable, according to a strongly worded letter from the state to Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego.
On multiple-choice tests, it's not unusual for students to give the same answer — when it's the correct answer. But about 30 students were giving the same wrong answers on the same questions.
A state analysis concluded the likelihood that students produced such similar tests under normal conditions was less than 1 in 1 trillion, according to the letter from Mike Blackburn, inspector general for the Florida Department of Education.
"The department is requiring you to conduct an internal investigation regarding the high incidence of answer documents having similarities at the identified schools," said Blackburn, adding that the department "appreciates your understanding and full cooperation in this important undertaking."
Octavio Salcedo, director of assessment and accountability for Pinellas schools, said he has interviewed Bay Point's principal, Felita Grant, the school's assistant principals and some teachers, as well as a handful of students.
Grant was not available to speak with a reporter Wednesday.
Bay Point is one of only 40 schools in Florida this year to undergo such an investigation. Although located in St. Petersburg, the school has a countywide magnet program focused on mathematics, science, technology and foreign language. This year, 261 families indicated interest in one of Bay Point's 108 open kindergarten seats.
So far, Salcedo says he has found no evidence of cheating by Bay Point students, teachers or administrators. He said he still needs to talk with more students and some of the test proctors, and expects the investigation to wrap up within the first few weeks of the school year.
If any cheating occurred, it didn't do much good, Salcedo said.
"The math scores are flat, there's no improvement," he said. "With all the data we have here, the school would have been a C again this year."
During the interviews, Salcedo is looking to find out whether policies for administering and storing tests were followed, and he is asking students whether their teachers improperly prompted them or gave them answers. The children with too-similar tests were spread across five or six classrooms, he said.
Looking at the high number of students who bubbled the answers, "I would think these are the kids who maybe stay after school and there's a tutor there telling them a certain thing, or that the school didn't do a good job of handling test materials," but Salcedo has not found that to be the case.
"We'll just have to document (the investigation) and send it to DOE," he said. "Maybe they'll consider it the 1 in 10,000 that does get flagged but then we find out nothing happened."
In his letter, inspector general Blackburn says, "These statistical analyses are used to further investigations, and the results should not be interpreted as accusatory or indicative of malicious intent by the school or county."
Lorrie Ashley, whose daughter was in the third grade last year at Bay Point, said the principal recently sent out a robocall about the missing grade but didn't explain the circumstances.
"Oh goodness, I'm pretty shocked to hear that. I was wondering what was going on," Ashley said after learning of the investigation. She said she is friendly with some of the fourth-grade teachers.
"I would hope it's a coincidence, but it could be more."
Contact Lisa Gartner at email@example.com. Follow @lisagartner.