SC requests SLED investigation of mandated student testing at Sumter High

Testing practices observed at Sumter High School earlier this year were some of the worst the state Department of Education has ever seen, a spokesman for the state agency said Wednesday.

In a letter dated Monday, the education department requested the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division conduct a criminal investigation into the local school and its administrators, prompted by what state education officials said they witnessed during the local school's High School Assessment Program testing in April.

As part of its investigation, auditors with the department said they found several significant testing violations, including testing materials not being secured properly at the campus, failure by the school administration to make accommodations for students with disabilities, failure to provide teachers and testing administrators with proper training and an overall poor testing environment for students.

In a written statement released Tuesday, Sumter School District Superintendent Randolph Bynum said the district will continue to look into the matter.

"We were surprised by the report from the State Department because during the follow-up briefing, we never received any inclination of severe concerns. This report does concern me, and the district will review the findings as to what is hearsay and factual and will take appropriate action where applicable," Bynum said.

Sumter High Principal Sterling Harris on Tuesday denied some of the allegations and questioned the motivation behind the report.

On Wednesday, Jay W. Ragley, spokesman for the education department, said the veteran department staffers conducting the Sumter High audit stressed to him the severity of the violations.

"They have never seen such a poorly organized testing procedure in a school," Ragley said. "This is, in their experience, one of the worst and unprepared buildings to give a test that they have ever seen."

Willfully violating mandated testing procedures is a criminal offense in South Carolina, and those found guilty can face both misdemeanor charges with a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine as well as revocation of their teaching and/or administrative credentials.

"It is extremely rare, and frankly, it's extremely disappointing that this happened to students," Ragley said. "You have a stressful situation (testing), and you compound that with a staff who the district has not trained, they have not properly trained them to administer the test, and that just causes more stress for everyone. And that's the fault of the leadership of the school and the district not preparing the staff, the front line, to be prepared to administer the test."

The state spokesman also said what was particularly alarming was the school's failure to provide students with disabilities the proper accommodations. "We take that very seriously," Ragley said. "That's a serious problem that the school district will have to address before the next school year."

As both local and state educators continued to react to the announcement, they also continued to disagree with some of the statements in the initial education department report.

Specifically, a dispute has arisen over the reported recollections of a conversation at Sumter High during the investigation between local Superintendent Randolph Bynum and state department auditor Kathy Ortlund.

In the report, the DOE said Ortlund and Bynum spoke during testing on April 18, at which time the state investigator "was very frank with him and explained her observations."

Responding to the initial announcement of the request to SLED, Bynum said on Tuesday, "I would like to note that the conversation noted in the report that supposedly took place with me and a SDE employee outlining the concerns never took place."

At the same time, first-year Sumter High principal Harris responded to the report with a four-page letter, in which he said, "I witnessed the conversation between Ms. Ortlund and my Superintendent, and he questioned her about many things regarding testing. At no time did she indicate that there was any major problem with testing. She consistently dodged some of his questions and absolutely did not take the opportunity to share some of the assumptions she wrote in this report."

On Wednesday, the superintendent clarified his statement, saying there was, in fact, a conversation between himself and Ortlund, but that it did not resemble anything like what was written in the department's report. "I am adamant that any discussion that took place was regarding the amount of time it took to get the testing started. I was not informed at that time of the specific concerns outlined in the report," Bynum said.

Ragley, however, said the state department stands by its entire report, including the recount of the conversation. "It was not the entire thing that was contained in the report, because she obviously was in the middle of observing what was going on, but she definitely had a conversation with Mr. Bynum and absolutely informed him of the problems she saw at that time," Ragley said.

Sumter School District Board of Trustees Chairman Keith Schultz said he had yet to see the report and that the board would wait until they received further information before taking any action on the issue.

"I am certainly apprised of the situation at Sumter High School, and there were some testing issues, if you will, but our board is going to look at it, and we're going to get apprised legally, and then we're going to move forward from there," Schultz said. He said he was aware Department of Education officials had visited Sumter High during the testing process but did not know their report would lead to a SLED investigation.

"If there were some irregularities, we'll deal with it," Schultz said.