Experts Outline Steps to Guard Against Cheating
Schools and districts may not be able to stop all cheating on high-stakes tests, but they can devise better practices that allow them to detect suspicious results and thoroughly investigate them, according to experts at a federally hosted symposium here last week on testing integrity.
The sponsor of the event, the National Center for Education Statistics, does not have any direct authority over state testing, though it administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as "the nation's report card," noted NCES Commissioner Sean P. "Jack" Buckley.
The NAEP program has not been hit with cheating allegations, Mr. Buckley said, but state testing officials have been asking the U.S. Department of Education for help establishing guidelines to handle test investigations after a recent string of high-profile cases across the country of adults tampering with tests to boost their schools' or districts' scores.
Among the takeaways from the Feb. 28 event: Schools and districts must create a "culture of integrity" where cheating is known to be unacceptable; officials must cut back on test-tampering opportunities and incentives to cheat; and allegations should be investigated thoroughly, even if the details seem hazy.
"Follow up on gossip," said Tisha S. Edwards, the chief of staff to Andrés A. Alonso, the chief executive officer of the 84,000-student Baltimore school district. Even conversations that aren't directly about cheating—for example, a parent concerned that his or her child's test scores seem improbably high—can be revealing. "People don't know they're reporting things when they really are," she said. Baltimore has documented cheating at some of its schools, and the investigation started in part based on parent complaints, she said.
One of the best-known recent cases of widespread test-cheating involved the 48,000-student Atlanta district, where 178 principals and teachers were accused of tampering with the 2009 state test after a Georgia state investigation last year. ("Test-Tampering Found Rampant in Atlanta System," July 13, 2011.)
The same Georgia investigative team said that teachers and principals in the 16,000-student Dougherty County district, about 170 miles south of Atlanta, confessed to altering their students' answer sheets the same year.
A probe conducted by the Baltimore district found that staff members at three elementary schools appeared to have altered student test booklets in 2008, 2009, and 2010. One of those schools had been praised as a Blue Ribbon School for academic excellence by the federal Education Department.
Last March, the newspaper USA Today printed an analysis of test scores in the District of Columbia, saying that more than half the schools in the 45,000-student system had been flagged by its testing contractor as having an unusually high number of wrong-to-right erasures. City and federal officials are currently investigating those allegations.
District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, one of the symposium's opening speakers, said she was one of the education leaders who went to the federal Education Department looking for help in how to investigate the cheating charges. Newspaper articles had accused the school system of doing only a cursory job of investigating itself, but she said the system brought in outside experts, interviewed school officials, probed every allegation, and punished or terminated employees who were found to have committed wrongdoing.
"At the same time, it was easy sport for the press to play the what-more-could-be-done game," Ms. Henderson said.
Role of NCLB
Schools have been under pressure to raise their students' test scores since the advent of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which requires states to set test-score improvement targets for schools and districts—and impose sanctions when they fall short. The Education Department is now considering waivers that would allow states to escape some sanctions associated with the NCLB law.
No one at the symposium suggested doing away with high-stakes tests. But Robert E. Wilson, a former county district attorney who oversaw the investigation in Atlanta, said that district's former leaders created an atmosphere of intimidation in which high-performing principals were praised and received bonuses and those who did not meet standards faced humiliation and job loss.
"The end result was absolutely a disaster," said Mr. Wilson. "You must set reasonable goals."
Another way to cut back on cheating is to conduct spot checks on test days and to reduce the amount of time test booklets and answer sheets remain at a school, several panelists suggested. They also said teachers and administrators might need better training on appropriate test proctoring and administration.
The next frontier for testing, panelists said, will be widespread use of computer-based assessments. Computerized testing eliminates some cheating opportunities, such as lost or stolen test books or copying during the tests.
But it also opens up a new realm of concerns. For example, many schools don't have enough computers to test all the students in one grade at the same time. Long testing windows make it easier for students to share answers with one another, and for teachers to see the questions and answers. Technology-assisted cheating may also rise to the forefront, experts said.
"It's going to be an issue we're going to have to confront until technology becomes much more broadly proliferated," said Wesley D. Bruce III, the chief assessment officer for the Indiana education department.
The federal education department plans to compile the information presented from last week's event into a resource for states, districts, and schools, said Joanne Weiss, the chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Vol. 31, Issue 23, Page 10Published in Print: March 7, 2012, as Educators Look for Lessons From Cheating Scandals