- Associated Press - Monday, July 27, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A Clarksdale teacher accused of helping students cheat on state tests began exploring a legal settlement with the Mississippi Department of Education Monday, after evidence against her began to mount in a hearing.

State officials are trying to suspend or revoke the teaching license of Frances Smith-Kemp, who was a fifth-grade teacher at Clarksdale’s Heidelberg Elementary School in 2012-2013. They say she and at least one other teacher, Jennifer Lutts, were part of a cheating scheme that drove up the school’s test scores in unlikely ways.

The state is not currently seeking to discipline Lutts, who has agreed to testify against Smith-Kemp. Monday’s proceedings left unclear whether state officials have evidence against Heidelberg Principal Lowanda Tyler-Jones or district Superintendent Dennis Dupree.

In testimony just before the recess that marked the beginning of settlement talks, state testing director Walt Drane said evidence including answer patterns, markings found in test booklets and statements from a proctor, the other teacher and students added up to an overwhelming case.

“It’s hard to deny when you have all those parties saying the same thing,” Drane said.

The case went ahead Monday after Smith-Kemp lost an appeal to Hinds County Chancery Court.

After Drane’s testimony, lawyer Preston Rideout sought a recess, discussing the situation with Smith-Kemp and Department of Education lawyers. Mark Garriga, a lawyer for the state, said both sides hope to reach a settlement by Tuesday morning. Any settlement would have to be ratified by the state teacher licensure commission, a subsidiary body to the Mississippi Board of Education.

Drane said the test results showed that answer sheets in fifth-grade math and language arts showed “extreme similarity” and test score growth from year to year “that’s not usually seen.”

After the testing office sent a letter asking Clarksdale to investigate scores at Heidelberg in August 2013, Dupree sent back a letter within three business days saying he found no misconduct. That was backed up by statements from people including Smith-Kemp, still a Clarksdale teacher.

Drane testified the office took Dupree’s response “at face value” and didn’t interview parents or students, considering the case closed. But in spring 2014, The Clarion-Ledger reported that former Heidelberg students said teachers helped them cheat and that teachers said Tyler-Jones told them how to do it. That story kick-started a much deeper state inquiry.

Students of Smith-Kemp and Lutts worked in their question booklets, Drane said, with answer sheets showing few if any erasures. In the booklet, Drane said there were an “excessive” number of erasures, with students repeatedly rubbing out wrong answers before arriving at the correct one.

Drane said Smith-Kemp denied wrongdoing and explained students’ improvement by saying she enjoyed teaching and loved her students. He said she eventually admitted to “pacing” her students, keeping them all on the same page.

Volunteer proctor Talatha Collins, and students said that Smith-Kemp guided students to the correct answer by pointing to incorrect ones and telling students “check your work,” until they got it right, Drane said. Those giving tests aren’t supposed to read questions, in part because it increases chances they will help students.

Drane said Lutts eventually admitted to cheating as well, saying she and Smith-Kemp consulted by text and cellphone during tests to decide correct answers.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy


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