Cheating on tests: Is it widespread? Is it the wrong issue?

Indiana and other states should be doing more to detect schools that are cheating on standardized tests, according to a nationwide reporting project led by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper.

But education officials and at least one researcher have questioned the AJC’s methodology and conclusions, suggesting they focus suspicion on schools that probably haven’t done anything wrong.

The newspaper looked at test scores in schools across the country to try to identify anomalies like those that touched off an investigation of cheating in Atlanta schools. That probe found that at least 178 Atlanta educators tampered with tests.

AJC reporters flagged schools with year-to-year test scores changes that seemed too big to result from chance or good or bad teaching. For example, if test scores for a school’s fifth-graders in 2010 were markedly different from those of the same school’s fourth-graders in 2009, suspicions were aroused.

“The analysis doesn’t prove cheating,” the newspaper said. “But it reveals that test scores in hundreds of cities followed a pattern that, in Atlanta, indicated cheating in multiple schools.”

According to the article, a school should expect to have up to 5 percent of its classes experience unusual changes in test scores from one year to the next. Districts that consistently have more than 10 percent of their classes flagged for unusual changes merit further scrutiny, it said.

But Western Michigan University researcher Gary Miron, writing for The Answer Sheet blog at the Washington Post, argues that the AJC’s methodology is flawed, and what may look like cheating, on further examination, probably isn’t.

Miron consulted with USA Today on its prize-winning investigation of possible cheating in Washington, D.C., schools, which looked at year-to-year changes in test scores for individual students as well as rates of erasures on the tests. He said the AJC’s approach – relying on class-level data, not individual scores – probably results in comparing test scores for different groups of students. Continue reading

Cheating scandals: Who will be next?

The news about the cheating scandal in Atlanta’s public schools just keeps getting worse. Teachers changed students’ answers on standardized tests from wrong to right, according to a state investigation. Students were allowed to look up answers or copy from classmates. Administrators created a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” and pressured teachers to cheat.

Coming on the heels of revelations of possible cheating in Washington, D.C., and alongside concerns from Pennsylvania and other states, the news raises obvious questions: Could it happen here in Indiana? Has it happened here already?

“Because of Atlanta, the media and policymakers are going back and looking at concerns raised about their states,” Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing told the Associated Press. “This is the top issue. When you see a story like this and see the incredible impact of the confessions, you start to look and say, ‘Hey, is there something comparable going on here?’ ”

Officials with the Indiana Department of Education are taking the idea seriously.

They recently asked CTB McGraw-Hill, the state’s primary testing contractor, to conduct an “erasure study” to look for suspicious trends of wrong answers being corrected on state tests, as happened in Atlanta, D.C. and Philadelphia.

Back in the spring, officials announced that department staff would make unannounced school visits during the March 2011 ISTEP-Plus tests, to make sure test security protocols were observed.

And a March 30 memo to the State Board of Education recounted 11 “recent violations of proper testing procedures.” Most involved teachers who devised lessons based on actual content of state exams, or who encouraged students to change answers from wrong to right.

In response, the state board gave preliminary approval in July to a rule intended to put in place stronger test-security procedures and establish procedures and penalties for security breaches. The action started a process of review and comment that will lead to adoption of the proposed rule as state law.

ISTEP-Plus is Indiana’s high-stakes test, but until now, the stakes have been high for schools but not for individuals. That’s about to change. Soon third-graders will be retained if they don’t pass the state reading test. Teachers’ salaries and job-retention prospects will depend partially on student test scores.

When there’s pressure to do whatever it takes to raise test scores, it’s not surprising that some folks will do, well, whatever it takes.