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St. Paul, Minn. — The Abraham Lincoln High School is under contract with the Minneapolis School District to teach recent immigrants with little or no English-speaking skills. The school is a private non-profit operation, but its students belong to the public school system and must pass the state basic skills tests in reading, math and writing before they can graduate.
Tad Thorstenson, a former English teacher who's now suing the school for wrongful termination, claims principal Abraham Dehzad, tried to intentionally manipulate test scores by discouraging certain students from participating.
"He called me to talk to him in the garage one day, and he said we need to have high scores this year," Thorstenson said. "He said we need the funding so we can get a larger building, and to do that we need to have high scores. He said I want you and your English department to find out which students cannot pass that test, and then you must tell them that they cannot take the test."
State law allows students who've been in the country less than 12 months to skip the tests if they choose. Students who've been in an English-speaking school less than three years are also eligible for a temporary exemption. Thorstenson says Dehzad singled out students he thought would do poorly and told them not to take the tests. He also claims the principal broke testing protocol by talking with students taking the Basic Skills Test in math. Thorstenson says he didn't see the violation but was told about it by the test monitor.
"He said the kids are raising their hands, and he's going over to each and every one of them who have their hands raised and he's telling those students what they're doing right or what they're doing wrong," Thorstenson said.
Thorstenson and other teachers reported the incidents to the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning. The state agency's Division of Accountability and Compliance investigated and issued a report in June which outlined specific violations of state law. CFL investigator Marikay Canaga Litzau says she determined school staff had prohibited or severely restricted some students from taking tests.
"What this school did was develop practice tests, which is fine to practice taking the test, but then they graded them," Litzau said. "They reviewed it within the school and then determined which students perhaps should not be taking the test. And I believe there was documentation that stated for students who had been in the United States for less than 12 months, that they really shouldn't be given the chance to decide on their own."
Litzau says she found school staff did provide definitions of vocabulary words during the math test. She says principal Dehzad admitted talking to students during the test but only to offer them encouragement. The investigation found no direct evidence that he helped students answer questions.
CFL holds the Minneapolis school district responsible for test law compliance in its contract schools. The CFL report only required the district to draft a memo to the school staff, reminding them of proper test procedures. There was no financial penalty, and test scores were not invalidated.
Still, the district's director of alternative and extended learning, Henry Terrell says he's taking the case seriously. "We certainly want to fulfill our responsibility ensuring all guidelines and rules and regulations are followed, and that we do everything we can to assist in the process and to support the school and the students," Terrell said.
Two weeks before the CFL issued its report, school officials sent termination letters to Thorstenson and four colleagues who cooperated in the investigation. They've filed a lawsuit claiming the school illegally fired them in retaliation for reporting the test violations. The lawsuit seeks restitution for lost income and emotional distress.
School officials declined to be interviewed for this story. Their lawyer, Brad Lindeman, says the school denies all of the allegations in the lawsuit. He also declined an interview request.