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Alleged Tampering Underscores Pitfalls of Testing

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Elementary school educators in several districts around the country have been accused recently of tampering with standardized tests.

Although relatively rare, the incidents flag the pitfalls of testing that may carry rewards or punishments for schools, teachers, or students and the pressure that educators--especially at the elementary level--feel to produce good results, experts said last week.

"Accountability is definitely a factor" in prompting such incidents, said Carole Kennedy, a principal in Columbia, Mo., and the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, Va. Such cheating by educators sets "a horrible example," she added.

Late last month, the school board in the small upstate New York community of Barker accepted the resignation of its superintendent and put the elementary school's principal on paid suspension as part of its response to allegations of test tampering.

Teachers at the elementary school were purportedly told to correct 3rd graders' wrong answers on the state's Pupil Evaluation Program, said Gerald Stuitje, the acting superintendent in the 1,200-student district northeast of Buffalo.

School board members said last month they had no evidence the superintendent, Robert Bouldin, was involved in asking teachers to erase incorrect answers on the state test in May. But they said his investigation of the incident should have been more thorough and he should have told them about the principal's possible involvement before they voted on her tenure appointment.

The district is pursuing formal disciplinary charges against the principal, who has told district officials that she intends to file a lawsuit against them, said Mr. Stuitje.

Mr. Bouldin could not be reached for comment last week.

Tampering incidents at the elementary level are not surprising because that is where individual student performance is closely tied to individual teachers, said Lorrie Shepard, a testing expert and the interim dean of the education school at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Standardized-test results are related to merit raises or bonuses in some districts. But Ms. Shepard said teacher surveys show that just the ranking of schools in local newspapers "can be enough to put an incredible amount of pressure [on educators] and affect morale."

Security Breached

In Chicago, public school officials last week were awaiting a hearing officer's decision about their attempt to fire a curriculum coordinator who was suspended without pay after an April test-tampering incident. A district investigation found that students at Clay Elementary School had been allowed to practice on the same version of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills that they were later given to take. Students were retested last school year after the apparent security breach.

The school's principal also got caught up in the probe. Last month, she served a 10-day unpaid suspension as a result of that incident, as well as a wider breach in test security at the school, said Marilyn Johnson, the general counsel for the 413,000-student district.

District officials found that the K-8 school had improperly kept old copies of ITBS tests and the Illinois Goal Assessment Program and had copied some of them. They also found that students were given copies of the 1994 Iowa tests to practice on--the same tests that were to be given again in last spring's testing cycle. Ms. Johnson said the curriculum coordinator was involved in distributing old tests to teachers.

The principal, Maria Prato, has denied knowing of the cheating, Ms. Johnson said. But Ms. Prato should have taken action after students reported that they recognized familiar questions, Ms. Johnson said.

For the first time, last spring's testing in Chicago counted in a new school board policy that requires 3rd, 6th, and 8th graders to score at a specified level on the Iowa test before they can be promoted to the next grade. Eighth graders must read at least at a 6th grade level or they face compulsory summer school attendance.

In addition to the scrutiny of Clay Elementary, Ms. Johnson said the legal department was looking into allegations that adults misused standardized tests at two other elementary schools. She declined to be more specific.

Deception or Expediency?

In Hawaii last spring, an elementary principal apparently had her staff fill in answers on a 3rd grader's uncompleted Stanford Achievement Test, a state education department spokesman said. The student, who is schooled at home, had taken part of the test at Kaaawa Elementary School on Oahu but did not finish it.

State education officials are now investigating the incident, which apparently came to light only this fall. The principal is still working at the school, said Greg Knudsen, a spokesman for the education department. But state officials "did immediately express [they] didn't feel that was appropriate at all, " he said.

Apparently, the principal was not trying to improve the school's test results through deception, Mr. Knudsen said. "I think it was just expediency.''

These revelations of alleged tampering follow on the heels of the widely publicized accusations of standardized-test cheating earlier this year at the K-5 Stratfield School in Fairfield, Conn. So far, though, one investigation has been inconclusive, and the results of another are pending. ("Whodunit?," Oct. 2, 1996.)

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