Exam-Testing Breaches Put Focus on Security

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A string of recent breaches in test security highlights the ineffective measures built into state assessment systems and raises questions about future security problems, some testing experts say.

In the past three months alone, education officials in Arizona, Illinois, Ohio, and Rhode Island have had to contend with school employees and students who, either intentionally or unintentionally, broke test-taking protocol and jeopardized the validity of exam results.

"There's no testing program I know of that's immune to the problem," said Stephen P. Klein, a senior research scientist at the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based research company. "We spend a lot of money on these tests, and it's like throwing money away because you can't ensure the validity of the test scores."

Left unchecked, problems will likely escalate, observers say, as many raise the stakes tied to test results.

In one example of what can go wrong, Rhode Island officials are moving to better safeguard their state's exams after widespread security breaches forced the postponement of testing last month.

After learning that teachers in some schools had saved copies of last year's test to help students prepare for this year's exam, which had the same questions, state officials will now administer different versions of the 4th, 8th, and 10th grade English and mathematics assessments in May.

"The teachers didn't intend to teach to the test," Commissioner of Education Peter J. McWalters said. "They thought they were just doing what teachers have done forever, which is keep the test to practice."

Added Security

In other recent examples of state test-security problems:

  • Arizona education officials moved last month to revoke the state teaching and administrative licenses held by an employee of the Ganado Unified School District, after the employee allegedly photocopied a draft of the state graduation test while it was still in development. According to state officials, the employee then gave the draft to consultants who were hired to prepare the district's teachers for the tests.
  • Ohio testing officials were forced to rewrite the essay questions for the state's 4th and 6th grade writing exams after the Xenia Daily Gazette, a newspaper in the state, quoted students describing the essay questions and published the story before many schools had given the tests. In a separate incident, the Akron Beacon Journal quoted a student discussing an essay question on a writing test given to 8th graders.

Officials say they will be working in the coming months to ensure that schools are aware of security issues. And they hope the publicity around the incidents will remind reporters that it is against state law to reveal test information before the release date, said LeeAnne Rogers, a spokeswoman for the state education department.

In an example of a district-level test security breach, the Chicago school system in January filed a $1 million lawsuit against Substance, a newspaper run by dissident teachers, when it published entire sections of the district's pilot tests after students at the district's 74 high schools took the exams.

Panels of teachers in the 430,000-student district are now rewriting the test, which school officials plan to administer in May.

In response to its recent problems, Rhode Island now requires that employees who administer its exams--as well as principals and district test coordinators--sign forms affirming that they followed testing protocol.

Harcourt Brace Educational Measurement, a San Antonio-based test publisher, has also agreed to add bar codes to Rhode Island's exams. The coding will allow test administrators to scan outgoing and incoming exams, making it easier to detect when tests have not been returned.

Still, Rhode Island officials acknowledge that even the bar codes, which will add $20,000 annually to the state's $700,000 assessment budget, could not stop someone bent on breaking the rules.

The system will still depend on "trust and competence" more than any other safeguard, Mr. McWalters said.

"I don't want anybody to think you can absolutely guarantee these [tests]," the commissioner added. "If someone really wants to breach this, they can."

Third-Party Safeguards

As many states move to expand the incentives and penalties tied to test performance, policymakers need to look seriously at security, said Wayne Martin, the director of state educational assessment for the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers.

"The fact that we've made it into a high-stakes situation with specific consequences for certain individuals means that we are going to have to tighten up security," Mr. Martin said. "We have always relied on teachers to administer the test. Why would you put that much temptation in front of someone?"

Some experts say states would be more likely to safeguard test results if they incorporated security measures similar to those used with such tests as the SAT, the ACT, and licensing examinations for doctors and lawyers.

If officials could give the same exam to all students on the same day, for example, or bring in a third party to administer the exams, security breaches would be far less common, those experts argue.

"When tests are given under controlled circumstances, and you have security, you get radically different results," said Mr. Klein of the RAND Corp. Third-party administration of state tests would cost roughly a dollar more per student, he estimated.

But Mr. Martin of the state chiefs' council commented that student absences, uncertain weather, and district-level scheduling conflicts can make it difficult for a state to administer assessments for all students on one set day.

Further, he acknowledged that while third-party administration may be the "cleanest" solution, the cost of such a move could be prohibitive for states and districts.

Costs aside, Lisa Graham Keegan, the state schools chief in Arizona, said that bringing in a third party to administer tests would send educators a devastating message: They can't be trusted.

"I want to believe the vast majority of people involved in education have a high degree of integrity," she said. "I feel strongly that [educators] own this test, and I would rather err on the side of inclusion."

Vol. 18, Issue 30, Pages 20, 23

Published in Print: April 7, 1999, as Exam-Testing Breaches Put Focus on Security
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