- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2011

In the wake of school cheating scandals across the country, several states are racing to implement new testing protocols before classes resume.

In New York, Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. created a task force last month to review all aspects of student assessment.

“The Commissioner will be announcing a series of measures to ensure the integrity of our testing system before our students return to school in September,” New York State Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said in a statement Monday.

Specific measures haven’t been announced, but state officials said they want to avoid problems that have plagued school systems in Atlanta, the District of Columbia and Philadelphia, where teachers are suspected of erasing wrong answers on standardized tests and replacing them with the right ones, all to make it appear that students were performing better than they actually were.

Education specialists say the scandals are largely driven by the high stakes attached to the tests. After the implementation of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, schools can be labeled as “failing” if test scores don’t improve, leading some teachers and administrators to take matters into their own hands.

Atlanta became the poster child for such corruption after a recent government probe found that 44 schools and 178 teachers and principals had been faking test scores for the past decade. Dozens of schools in Pennsylvania, including many in the Philadelphia area, are under investigation. In the District, the inspector general for the federal Education Department is looking into suspected cheating, and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has welcomed the review.

Similar cheating charges have confronted schools in Dallas, Baltimore, Houston and elsewhere.

More than 30 New Jersey schools remain under investigation for falsifying test scores, and state officials are taking a variety of steps to prevent cheating.

“The recent wave of cheating scandals across the country has reminded us that even though the vast majority of our teachers and administrators are honest, hard-working professionals, a small handful of unethical people sometimes do unethical things,” Christopher D. Cerf, the state’s acting education commissioner, said in a July 19 memo to school leaders. “These actions not only threaten the integrity of our data, but worse they undermine the hard work of their students and demean the passion and commitment of … teachers. We will continue to be vigilant in monitoring potential testing irregularities.”

Mr. Cerf outlined three steps the state will take to ensure test scores are on the level. First, he said, the Education Department will strengthen its “internal data systems” and examine test results at the classroom level. Officials also are exploring “person-fit” analyses that would match “wrong-to-right erasures with a student’s ability, which may be used to investigate potential tampering.”

Second, districts are being asked to keep a closer eye on individual schools and review all security protocols during testing. Also, the department’s office of fiscal accountability and compliance will independently review schools where the number of test erasures is significantly higher than average.

In Waterbury, Conn., 17 staffers at Hopeville Elementary School will be on paid leave until the state completes an investigation into cheating on state assessments, the Republican-American newspaper reported. The staffers were involved in the security and administration of tests inside the school, according to the paper.

Waterbury Public Schools did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Times on Tuesday.

In Ohio, four investigations into test scores have been launched in the past year, said state Department of Education spokesman Patrick Gallaway. He would not discuss the details of those investigations, but said officials will continue to keep an eye out for abnormally high numbers of erasures.

Even before the Atlanta cheating scandal captured headlines this year, Florida hired a data forensics company to review all tests and look for “students with extremely similar test responses, and schools with improbable levels of similarity, gains and/or erasures,” according to a March 14 memo from Kris Ellington, the state’s deputy commissioner of education.

In Michigan, state Department of Education officials often show up unannounced during assessments, ensuring that teachers or administrators don’t change answers.

Despite the steps that states are taking, federal involvement may not be limited to the District. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said July 18 that he has discussed the rash of scandals with the inspector general, and he “believes they are looking into them.”

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