Several Van Buren Public Schools staffers have been placed on administrative leave after a recent investigation found indications of cheating on a new state standardized test, according to state officials.

State officials invalidated the results on the 2015 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress for Savage Elementary School — only the third time in 12 years that has been done on such an assessment, said Jan Ellis, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Education. “It’s a rare occurrence,” she said.

The district acknowledged inappropriate training, use of prohibited coaching techniques and other issues surrounding the test, administered last spring. Consequently, the department is set to monitor this spring’s M-STEP and the district has agreed to assign monitors, among other measures, state officials said.

“Cheating on assessments is unacceptable, hurts students and prevents schools from using valuable data to inform student instruction and supports,” Ellis said in a statement. “The department greatly appreciates the exemplary cooperation by Van Buren Public Schools in identifying and resolving this serious issue.”

Meanwhile, the situation is sparking concerns among parents in the district.

“What’s wrong with scores going up?” said Charity Fielder, whose children attended Savage. “How do you cheat on a reading test?”

Superintendent Michael Van Tassel confirmed the administrative leaves stemmed from the M-STEP. The district self-reported the scores for the mostly online exam, which Michigan students took for the first time last year. The test is considered a more rigorous assessment than the Michigan Educational Assessment Program it replaced.

Van Buren school officials contacted the Michigan Department of Education’s Office of Standards and Assessment last year about the “unusually high” marks around the same time the state was reviewing test data for anomalies, Ellis said.

State officials noted issues in the test results for third- and fourth-graders in mathematics as well as English Language Arts, according to a Dec. 2 letter from the department posted on the district’s website. An analysis showed Savage students had “a significantly higher percentage of students meeting proficiency (Levels 3 or 4) than the three other elementary schools in the Van Buren Public Schools and compared to the statewide average,” test security specialist Jason Kolb wrote.

Among the state findings: 90 percent of third- and fourth-graders at Savage met proficiency in math, but the percentage never topped 65 at other district elementary schools. Michigan’s average was considerably lower.

State officials also found “significant discrepancies from what would normally be expected” with the average total test time and the time students spent on individual test items, according to the letter Kolb sent Van Tassel.

A law firm’s investigative report said “two staff members admitted to some level of assistance during the test” and students suggested they were walked through problems.

The probe acknowledged inappropriate teacher training, “lack of accountability by staff to follow all aspects of the state manuals and forms” as well as “prohibited coaching techniques from proctors and a misuse of the student ‘submit’ button in order to check student answers.”

The test cannot be retaken, Ellis said.

In an interview Monday night, Van Tassel would not share the number of employees placed on leave and said privacy issues prevent him from disclosing details. However, a school board member and parents said five Savage staffers were removed from their classrooms last week.

“It’s a very difficult situation ... but we need to do an investigation in the right manner and we’re trying to conduct that in fairness to their constitutional rights as well as union rights, etc.,” Van Tassel said. “They have a right to due process.”

School board trustee Sherry Frazier said she first learned about the removals from a parent who called to say her child was “in tears” after witnessing his “visibly shaken” teacher being replaced.

“It’s a tragedy, a disaster and something that was totally uncalled for,” she said.

Others in the district wondered if any action was justified. “I personally think we’re not being told the whole story,” said Steve Harkle, whose daughter attended Savage last year.

He added that one of the teachers placed on leave helped his child perform better in fifth grade. “She was pretty upset when she saw her scores were redacted and that they wouldn’t be retested. She was proud of that score. She thought she did really well.”

Parent Andrea VanDenBergh, who recently launched a Facebook page supporting the Savage staffers, said she doubts they knowingly violated rules.

“I know all of these teachers,” she said. “There was no benefit to them for cheating. It just makes no sense to me.”

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