Monday, December 14, 2020

Florida Phoenix on Indictments for Cheating on Florida Administrator and Teacher Exams


U.S. attorney alleges conspiracy to sell answers to FL’s teacher, principal certification tests

Teacher with students, in a classroom. Credit: Getty Images.

Federal prosecutors in Tallahassee released an indictment Friday alleging a massive conspiracy by a Fort Myers couple to fraudulently acquire and sell questions and answers from the state’s school teacher and principal examinations.

In a 65-page indictment, U.S. Attorney Lawrence Keefe’s public trust unit alleged that Jeremy and Kathleen Jasper, owners of a test-prep company called NavaEd, sat for the Florida Teacher Certification Exam and Florida Educational Leadership Exam, memorized the Qs and As, then sold them to clients.

That violated agreements they entered into while sitting for the exams not to disseminate the information to third parties.

Lawrence Keefe, U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Florida. Credit: Wikipedia.

“A significant number of individuals as well as organizations obtained these questions and answers and were part of the dissemination of them and use of them by a certain numerical segment of people who sat for and took and prepared for the exam,” Keefe said during a Zoom news conference.

The Jaspers were due for their first appearance in the federal courthouse in Tallahassee Friday afternoon.

The state enacted changes to the certification process in 2017 that it said would streamling the process. However the system subsequently experienced backlogs that were cleared up last year, as the Phoenix reported at the time.

The indictment contains 114 counts, including conspiracy to commit racketeering involving wire fraud, fraudulent misrepresentation, and trade-secrets theft conspiracy against Jeremy and Kathleen Jasper, owners of a test-prep company called NavaEd.

Each racketeering- and wire fraud-conspiracy count and wire fraud count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years, Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Keen, the lead investigator, said.

The trade-secrets theft and related conspiracy counts each carry 10 years.

The basis of the alleged fraud is that the Jaspers violated agreements they made when taking certification tests not to disseminate the questions and answers by any means, including memorization, Keen said.

“That’s the lie that we’ve alleged in the indictment,” he said.

Wire fraud attaches because Pearson Vue, the consultancy the state uses to administer the examinations, operates through offices located out of state. Trade-secrets theft is implicated because the material was the intellectual property of the Florida Department of Education.

“The Jaspers knowingly and willfully preyed on innocent school districts, promising to help their teachers prepare for certification and leadership exams,” said Kori Smith of the U.S. DOE’s Office of Inspector General, which participated in the investigation along with the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Keefe didn’t disclose how many test-takers were involved or what penalties might attach, such as loss of certification. The state and federal education authorities will have to weigh in on those questions, he said.

A press release issued by his office says the Jaspers and employees disseminated the material — “verbatim and almost verbatim — in test prep publications used in seminars and tutoring sessions.

NavaEd provided in-person and online test prep and tutoring services “throughout Florida,” Keen said, but he wouldn’t disclose which counties might have been harmed. He also declined to attach a dollar amount to the alleged fraud, noting that the bottom line has increased during the still-pending investigation and might do so again.

The scheme allegedly went on for four years but stopped in March 2018 after Florida DOE officials noticed anomalies in test results and brought in state and federal agents.

The matter drew the federal criminal investigation because federal dollars go into the certification system, Keefe said, and because the alleged scheme crossed state lines.

He suggested the operation crossed international borders, too, but declined to provide details in light of the continuing investigation.

There was a third point of interest for the feds, as well:

“We have a situation where the misappropriation of these questions and answers has had the effect potentially of corrupting the process by which Florida, the third largest state in this country, tests, evaluates, and certifies its teachers as well as its educational administrators and principals,” Keefe said.

“We want to do everything we can to maintain the great trust that the people of Florida have in the Florida Department of Education,” he said.

Keefe stressed that the “vast, vast, vast majority of Florida’s teachers and principals are highly competent, high-integrity, and selflessly do great and good work each day through very challenging times for all of us — students, parents, and the public at large in Florida.”

Update: Later in the day, the U.S. Attorney’s Office released additional information to the effect that at least 10,000 test takers had access to NavaEd’s materials.

A number of counties purchased the materials, including Broward, Citrus, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Lee, Miami-Dade, Orange, Osceola, Seminole, and Union.

Public and private colleges and universities that purchased the material include Bethune Cookman University, Broward College, Chipola College, Florida A&M University, Florida Atlantic University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Florida International University, Polk State College, St. Johns College, Stetson University, and the University of Tampa.

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