The Adams Five Star district, north of Denver, includes Broomfield, Federal Heights, Northglenn, Thornton and Westminster.

Updated – Story has been updated to include a graphic showing how Adams 12 Five Star fared with, and without, the COVA test results on the 2010 CSAP.

Original story begins here:

The discovery of the biggest error in Colorado’s state testing history began with a March 2 phone call.

A 6th-grader at the Colorado Virtual Academy had completed an 8th-grade test, a staff member at the online charter school told officials at the Adams Five Star district. What do we do?

“That raised a red flag for us,” Superintendent Chris Gdowski said Thursday. “How does that happen? How do you have a kid taking the wrong grade-level examination? So we did some digging.”

District officials found the school known informally as COVA was testing students from different grades in the same room, a violation of state testing protocol.

Adams Five Star went to the state Department of Education, which ultimately tossed out 6,126 tests over COVA’s objections.

That means 6,126 “no scores” or zeros for the state’s fifth-largest school district, a number big enough that it is expected to drop districtwide averages on the exams. Results will be made public on Tuesday.

Gdowski hoped the state would exclude the “no scores” from its reported results for Adams Five Star. That won’t happen so the district is releasing its own numbers and preparing for damage control.

“That just puts a big cloud on what good work has otherwise gone on in our system,” he said, “and it’s confusing for the public.”

Testing challenges for an online school

COVA is chartered through Adams Five Star but the majority of its 5,000 students in grades K-12 live across the state. So the school may rent a couple dozen venues for testing purposes.

“Because we do not have a specific brick and mortar building, we go out and find locations for rent – community colleges, charter schools, conference rooms in hotels,” said Heidi Heineke-Magri, COVA head of school. “A lot of our families actually travel many miles to get to our CSAP location.”

Adams Five Star Superintendent Chris Gdowski

In prior years, Heineke-Margi said, the school has tested different grades in the same room.

“In the past, we’ve gotten approval to have multi-level testing,” she said. “The reason we do this is because it really makes it easier on our families. Some families with multiple-age children in our school … it’s very, very hard for them.”

State and district officials dispute that they ever approved – or even knew – that COVA was testing more than one grade in the same room.

“The state procedures manual is clear and has not changed,” said Jo O’Brien, the state’s assistant commissioner for standards and assessment. “Tests may not be administered in groups of students from different grades taking tests in different subjects.”

Who knew what, and when?

In fact, O’Brien said, state officials fielded a phone call from a COVA staff member last fall about the propriety of testing multiple grades and subjects in the same room, something they were already doing. It was the first that CDE had heard of it, she said, and COVA was told not to do it.

In addition, the annually updated guide for test proctors was released in early December, months before the testing window opened, and it “specifically clarified COVA’s inquiry,” she said.

“COVA made a judgment call to continue using improper testing procedures,” O’Brien said.

Heineke-Magri, a former testing coordinator for COVA who more recently ran the charter high school, was named head of school after the misadministration was discovered. She said her inquiries tell a different story.

COVA is part of K12 Inc., which bills itself as "America's largest provider of online education for grades K-12."

“COVA staff and teachers were unaware during the test administration that students in different grades were unable to take tests in the same room,” she wrote in a May letter to parents explaining why their children would receive “no scores” on their CSAP exams.

“Although there was previously no documented prohibition on multi-grade level test settings, COVA was informed that this year’s new Proctor Manual did include a reference to a prohibition on multi-grade level testing,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, this regulation was not included in the state’s Procedures Manual, nor was it emphasized during communication between COVA and CDE or during the training.”

When COVA realized there was an issue, after contacting the district March 2, the school immediately stopped multi-grade testing, she said.

“I believe it was reported on a Tuesday,” Heineke-Magri said, “and within 12 hours we had a correction in place so all of our tests on that Wednesday were administered in what we call a pure environment, one grade level testing with one proctor in one room.”

Impact of no scores for school, district

COVA administered 9,700 CSAP reading, writing, math and science tests in grades 3-10 this past spring – the district and state determined more than 6,100 were invalid. Only third-grade reading tests and science exams in grades 5, 8 and 10 escaped the exclusion.

Heineke-Magri, who argued against the invalidation, said the state’s appeals process consisted of the school, district and state staff discussing the issue around a table. There is no formal appeal.

“We honestly believe that the integrity of the test was not compromised,” she said.

COVA is working with the district to “to look at raw scores to come up with probable scores,” she added, so the school and families will have some idea of their progress.

But the “no scores” mean the school will not make Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. “Publicly, those scores are going to look very bad on our school,” Heineke-Magri said.

Click on graphic to enlarge.

COVA, first chartered in Adams Five Star in 2003, is part of K12 Inc., which bills itself as “America’s largest provider of online education for grades K-12.” Its charter is up for renewal in 2013.

The school, which serves a largely white and relatively affluent population, compared to the rest of Colorado, lagged statewide averages on the 2009 reading exams by a few percentage points.

Gdowski, the superintendent, said he advocated the COVA scores be excluded from the CSAP results being released at a state press conference next week.

Their inclusion is not expected to affect funding or the district’s growth scores, he said. It’s also unlikely to damage the accreditation rating the district receives from the state, provided the testing mishap is a one-time occurrence.

Still, he worries about public perception and staff morale.

“In the end, CDE took a position that we understand, that we charter COVA, we’re accountable for their results like all the other schools that are within the district and that we charter,” he said, “and we’re living with that, and just doing our best to help people understand how that doesn’t reflect … how our district performed as a whole.”

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at nmitchell@ednewscolorado.org or 303-478-4573.