Royster fights test cheating accusations

Officials: Never is it permissible to coach a student

Carmen Royster appeared in an employment hearing Thursday to dispute allegations of misconduct during the administration of a standardized test last spring. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

Carmen Royster appeared in an employment hearing Thursday to dispute allegations of misconduct during the administration of a standardized test last spring. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

JONESBORO — A special education teacher accused of tipping off students with answers to a standardized test last spring is fighting to keep her job.

Carmen Royster appeared in an employment hearing Thursday to dispute allegations of misconduct during the administration of the state’s 2013 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.

Attorney Winston Denmark, representing Clayton County Public Schools, argued to a three-member panel reasons Superintendent Luvenia Jackson’s recommendation to dismiss Royster should be upheld.

Attorney Steven Frey represented Royster.

“Did you cheat?” asked Frey.

“No, I did not,” Royster responded.

Denmark contended she violated the testing protocol while administering the CRCT to her special needs students at Eddie White Academy April 17. He said she “suggested answers” and gave “verbal affirmation” of correct answers.

There was “a loud noise,” said Jill Grant, the first of three eyewitnesses called to testify.

Grant is a parent-volunteer who was serving as a hallway monitor at the time. Tiffany Nealy, an instructional facilitator at Lovejoy Middle School, was assigned by the district to monitor testing that day at Eddie White Academy.

Nealy said she witnessed Royster giving what she thought were verbal and visual cues to her students.

“I saw the teacher walking around the classroom and I heard ‘uh’ as she walked around the students looking over their shoulders — ‘Uh, well alright, let’s go on to the next question,’” said Nealy.

Nealy testified that she did not know what the “uh” sound meant or what it was directed to. She said voice inflections were not allowed in her training on testing but she added she had not received training on the special “read-to” testing required for some students with special needs.

She said she interpreted the vocals and some hand gestures as cues to tip off students on test answers.

“We don’t do anything to impede on the way students respond to questions on the test,” said Nealy. “Once that happens, my directives are to let the building supervisor know.”

Charlene Woods was identified as the third and primary eyewitness to the alleged cheating. Woods is a kindergarten paraprofessional at Eddie White Academy.

“It was that Wednesday, and the kids were testing,” Woods said. “I was a proctor in the classroom. Mrs. Royster was making voice inflections. She made hand gestures, when she would read a question and her voice raised. To me it was kind of a signal like ‘yes, you have the right answer’ or ‘no, you have the wrong answer choice.’”

She said she questioned Royster’s testing methods.

“Just seeing the scandal that happened with the APS school system, I felt like I should say something,” said Woods. “It was for her to take it or leave it. It was her first time doing a test for the Clayton County School System, and I didn’t know whether she had seen the news.”

Woods acknowledged she had never administered, or proctored, a standardized test to special needs students before last spring.

Royster has more than two decades experience and a dual certification in general education and special education. The test was her first as a Georgia teacher as she is in her first year with the district. She said she previously taught in Detroit Public Schools.

“I am animated, yes,” said Royster, adding she attempted to hold her students’ attention during the test.

Royster said her classroom is identified as a “division of exceptional students” with four different disabilities among them — those with emotional behavior disorder, mild intellectual disabilities, speech impairments and specific learning disabilities.

“While we’re waiting for one of the students to comply, I might lose them,” she said. “I have two students who daydream and get lost.”

Eddie White Academy’s assistant principal, Dr. Juerita Caruthers, is the school’s testing coordinator. She testified she had no first-hand knowledge of what happened in the classroom during testing.

Caruthers did train the school’s staff on testing protocol and procedure, however, and was a link in the chain of investigation regarding the cheating allegations.

“We did two simulations and (practically) shut the school down to do the training,” she said. “There can be no gestures, vocal cues or suggested answers.”

Caruthers said teachers were asked to sign an affidavit prior to testing and at the completion of testing.

“It’s a teacher verification form that covers a bullet-list of what you may do or may not do during testing,” said Caruthers. Royster did not sign the completion of testing affidavit because she was “pulled from testing.”

The district’s assessment and accountability coordinator, Dr. Natasha Jefferson, said Royster’s alleged actions were inconsistent with test training.

“Never is it permissible to coach a student, never is it permissible to provide them with voice inflections,” said Jefferson. “You should not guide the student.”

Jefferson said the effects of cheating are far-reaching because they can invalidate testing which counts toward the district’s standing in Georgia’s College and Career Ready Performance Index.

Even if the students do poorly on the test, their attendance and participation count toward the district’s overall participation rate measured on the index.

Royster was also accused of having a cell phone, though she was not supposed to have any devices in testing. The phone rang in the classroom but during a test break, she said, adding it was a new phone she thought was on vibrate. She said she had the phone with her at the time to be available because her husband was ill.

Stephanie Banks presided over Thursday’s hearing. The tribunal panel comprises Phyllis Levert, Shirley Kilgore and Joseph Scott, who are deliberating Royster’s employment case.