NEWPORT — A middle school science teacher resigned Thursday following allegations nearly three months ago that he allowed many of his students to review questions on a state test a day before they took it.

William R. Brooks, who taught science at Sebasticook Valley Middle School for seven years, handed in his resignation after consulting with an attorney for Newport-based Regional School Unit 19, according to Superintendent William Braun. The teacher had been on paid administrative leave since the end of the school year.

Brooks, through his attorney, denied any wrongdoing on Thursday and said the incident was a misunderstanding.

He wrote a one-sentence resignation letter: “I hereby irrevocably tender my resignation from employment with RSU 19 effective Aug. 1, 2011.”

Braun declined to discuss what specifically led to Brooks’ resignation, but he confirmed that an investigation into a “testing irregularity” by the Maine Department of Education was “certainly a part of it.”

That investigation is detailed in a Department of Education report that finds “reliable evidence” that questions from the 2011 Maine Educational Assessment science test were disclosed improperly to three of four eighth-grade science classes at the Newport middle school.

The MEA is a standardized test given to the state’s fifth- and eighth-graders in the spring. It is used to measure student progress in science across the state and is reported to the federal government but not used for accountability purposes under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

State education officials conducted interviews with school staff members and test administrators, except for Brooks, who declined an interview.

Among the claims cited in the report is that Brooks reviewed questions with students the day before administering the state test May 12. Several students recognized the test questions as the ones they reviewed before the actual test, according to the report, with one student commenting as the test began, “I remember these. We practiced them in science class.”

Brooks allegedly told the students, “You need to do well to make me look good,” and after reading the questions he told his class, “You should be able to get this,” according to claims cited in the report.

Brooks’ lawyer, Howard T. Reben of Portland, said Thursday that his client “denies any wrongdoing” and decided to resign voluntarily. He was given an undisclosed severance package, Reben said.

“It’s a personal decision,” Reben said. “He decided he didn’t want to go through the rigmarole or put the students through it. I think it’s a very difficult decision, and it’s done with respect for school authorities and the students. Those are factors that would lead him to come to this conclusion.”

The state report does not name Brooks directly; It refers only to a “Grade 8 science teacher,” but Braun confirmed that Brooks was the unnamed teacher involved in the department’s investigation. In addition, Brooks was the only eighth-grade science teacher at the middle school, according to its 2011 student handbook.

‘Testing irregularity’

It didn’t take long for word to spread May 12 of a “testing irregularity” with the eighth-grade science section of the 2011 MEA test, according to the state investigation.

Students began telling several middle school test administrators that the science section “was easy” because “they had been given the questions on the test by their Grade 8 science teacher the day before the test.” Hearing these reports, Principal Fred Johnston contacted Susan Smith, the test coordinator for the Department of Education, who instructed him to document an investigation into the matter and report back.

On June 3, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen ordered his department to conduct its own investigation. Department staffers went to the school June 16 to interview school officials, who reported what they and students said the day of the test.

Soon after the science test was over, a “very reliable student” reported to another test administrator that the test was “easy” because Brooks had reviewed the questions in class the day before.

Under the state education department’s rules, the test’s questions should not be disclosed before the test date and doing so is a violation of security requirements in the test administrator manual. The department posts test questions from the two previous years on its website as examples to help teachers and students.

Another student told an administrator that Brooks had reviewed 15 to 20 questions on the 2011 test, and another “indicated that they ‘ran out of time,’ so didn’t get to all” of the test’s 50 questions.

Brooks’ fourth science class did not meet the day before the test and there were no reports from those students that the test questions were reviewed. One student in that fourth class, upon hearing another student’s remark about the test questions being reviewed, commented that it “wasn’t fair” the questions hadn’t been shared with his class too, according to the report.

In all, school officials said they have statements and notes from at least 42 students, “more than six of whom identified” the test booklet used by Brooks as the 2011 edition, not a practice booklet from previous years.

Brooks provided explanations to school officials showing it was all a misunderstanding, according to his lawyer, Reben. Brooks did review with his students subject matter that he had been covering the last two weeks, Reben said, and that subject matter corresponded to questions on the test. In addition, Brooks provided other appropriate resources for his students, “providing them with access to a website and handouts, and some of the familiarity of the students (with the test questions) was somewhat understandable.”

“The state discloses the last two years of tests, and that was certainly part of it; but he also has a fairly elaborate website to assist the students in learning, and this information on his website paralleled some of the test questions,” Reben said. So because of such resources, “it didn’t come as a great surprise the students would have felt the test was easier than other people might have thought.”

Braun said the state report “wasn’t very convincing or helpful, in reality,” because it didn’t appear to him to answer definitively whether the test content was disclosed improperly.

State recommendations

At the conclusion of the state report, several recommendations are listed. Commissioner Bowen, in a June 24 cover letter accompanying the report to Newport school officials, says the recommendations “are ones that I have accepted and am hereby implementing with department staff.”

The recommendations are:

* That the commissioner invalidate the 2011 MEA Grade 8 science test scores for the three classes that met with Brooks the day before the test.

* That the Sebasticook Valley Middle School staff, including the principal, be trained by MEA test officials on the test’s security requirements.

* And, in consultation with the assistant attorney general for the department, that the “testing irregularity” be referred to the department’s teacher certification office “for further investigation of the role of the Grade 8 science teacher and for further action, as needed.”

David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education, confirmed Thursday that Brooks is certified as a teacher in Maine. He declined to verify whether there was a certification investigation, citing department policy.

“We don’t have any claim from the attorney general of an inquiry into certification,” Reben said.

According to published reports, Brooks is a 1988 graduate of Nokomis Regional High School in Newport. In 2009, the RSU 19 Board of Directors voted not to renew Brooks as coach of the Nokomis boys basketball team after back-to-back winless seasons.

In the aftermath of Brooks’ resignation, Braun said the school has begun reviewing applications for a new science teacher and hopes to hire one before school starts Aug. 30.

Braun said he can’t recall the district ever having such a problem previously.

“I think it’s unfortunate, because he’s a young guy,” Braun said. “He has high standards in his classroom and high expectations for his kids, and he tries to get the most out of them.”

Scott Monroe — 861-9239

[email protected]

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