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Topic: [ncsm-members] Suspicious school test scores across the nation
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] Suspicious school test scores across the nation
Posted: Mar 25, 2012 9:18 PM
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From The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday,
March 25, 2012. See
- reference to this article is made by Bob
Schaeffer on the EDDRA 2 listserve on Saturday,
March 24, 2012, who also mentions to be sure to
read through the supplementary documentation
linked from the left side of the main article
Cheating our children: Suspicious school test scores across the nation

By Heather Vogell, John Perry and Alan Judd and M.B. Pell

VIDEO SIDEBAR: Cheating Our Children - An
Exclusive AJC Investigation -- see

Suspicious test scores in roughly 200 school
districts resemble those that entangled Atlanta
in the biggest cheating scandal in American
history, an investigation by The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution shows.

The newspaper analyzed test results for 69,000
public schools and found high concentrations of
suspect math or reading scores in school systems
from coast to coast. The findings represent an
unprecedented examination of the integrity of
school testing.

The analysis doesn't prove cheating. But it
reveals that test scores in hundreds of cities
followed a pattern that, in Atlanta, indicated
cheating in multiple schools.

A tainted and largely unpoliced universe of
untrustworthy test results underlies bold changes
in education policy, the findings show. The
tougher teacher evaluations many states are
rolling out, for instance, place more weight than
ever on tests.

Perhaps more important, the analysis suggests a
broad betrayal of schoolchildren across the
nation. As Atlanta learned after cheating was
uncovered in half its elementary and middle
schools last year, falsified test results deny
struggling students access to extra help to which
they are entitled, and erode confidence in a
vital public institution.

"These findings are concerning," U.S. Secretary
of Education Arne Duncan said in an emailed
statement after being briefed on the AJC's

He added: "States, districts, schools and testing
companies should have sensible safeguards in
place to ensure tests accurately reflect student

In nine districts, scores careened so
unpredictably that the odds of such dramatic
shifts occurring without an intervention such as
tampering were worse than one in 10 billion.

In Houston, for instance, test results for entire
grades of students jumped two, three or more
times the amount expected in one year, the
analysis shows. When children moved to a new
grade the next year, their scores plummeted - a
finding that suggests the gains were not due to

Overall, 196 of the nation's 3,125 largest school
districts had enough suspect tests that the odds
of the results occurring by chance alone were
worse than one in 1,000.

For 33 of those districts, the odds were worse than one in a million.

A few of the districts already face accusations
of cheating. But in most, no one has challenged
the scores in a broad, public way.

The newspaper's analysis suggests that tens of
thousands of children may have been harmed by
inflated scores that could have precluded
tutoring or more drastic administrative actions.

The analysis shows that in 2010 alone, the
grade-wide reading scores of 24,618 children
nationwide - enough to populate a midsized school
district - swung so improbably that the odds of
it happening by chance were less than one in

Cheating is one of few plausible explanations for
why scores would change so dramatically for so
many students in a district, said James Wollack,
a University of Wisconsin-Madison expert in
testing and cheating who reviewed the newspaper's

"I can say with some confidence," he said,
"cheating is something you should be looking at."

Statistical checks for extreme changes in scores
are like medical tests, said Gary Phillips, a
vice president and chief scientist for the large
nonprofit American Institutes for Research, who
advised the AJC on its methodology.

"This is a broad screening," he said. "If you
find something, you're supposed to go to the
doctor and follow up with a more detailed
diagnostic process."

The findings come as government officials,
reeling from recent scandals, are beginning to
acknowledge that a troubling amount of score
manipulation occurs. Though the federal
government requires the tests, it has not
mandated screening scores for anomalies or
investigating those that turn up.

Daria Hall, director of k-12 policy with the
nonprofit The Education Trust, said education
officials should take steps to ensure the
validity of test results because of the critical
role they play in policy and practice.

"If we are going to make important decisions
based on test results - and we ought to be doing
that - we have to make important decisions about
how we are going to ensure their
trustworthiness," she said. "That means districts
and states taking ownership of the test security
issue in a way that they haven't to date."

'Way too much pressure'

Both critics and supporters of testing said the
newspaper's findings are further evidence that in
the frenzy to raise scores, the nation failed to
pay enough attention to what was driving the

"We are putting way too much pressure on people
to raise scores at a very large clip without
holding them accountable for how they are doing
it," said Daniel Koretz, a Harvard Graduate
School of Education testing expert.

Test-score pressure is palpable in schools
grappling with urban blight and poverty.

These are the schools that the 2001 No Child Left
Behind Act was supposed to fix.

But at Patrick Henry Downtown Academy in St.
Louis, airy red brick towers rising above the
school belie a grimmer reality on the ground.
Children leaving one recent afternoon passed
piles of trash and a .45 caliber bullet tucked
into the curb. Inside, their classrooms are beset
by mold, rats, discipline problems and scandal.

Last year, the former principal - once hailed as
among the district's strongest - was accused by
Missouri officials of falsifying attendance rolls
to get more state money.

State investigators didn't publicly question Henry's test scores.

But the AJC's analysis found suspicious scores in
the school dating back to 2007. In 2010, for
instance, about 42 percent of fourth-graders
passed the state math test. When the class took
the tests as fifth-graders the next year - with
state investigators looking into cheating and
other fraud allegations - just 4 percent passed

Experts say student learning doesn't typically jump backwards.

Henry's scores were consistently among the lowest
in the state - except for the occasional sudden

After school one recent afternoon, Deborah
Dodson, who sends two children to the school,
said she saw a teacher provide inappropriate
one-on-one assistance during a state test. And
she's heard from other parents that teachers will
give students answers.

Some students who aren't likely to test well
don't receive tests at all, she said. "They don't
do anything by the book," Dodson said. "That
school and how they do things is not right."

Rural, city schools flagged

The AJC used freedom of information laws to
collect test scores from 50 states to look for
the sort of patterns that signaled cheating in
Atlanta. A Georgia investigation last year found
at least 178 Atlanta educators - principals,
teachers and other staff - took part in
widespread test-tampering.

In each state, the newspaper used statistics to
identify unusual score jumps and drops on state
math and reading tests by grade and school.
Declines can signal cheating the previous year.
The calculations also sought to rule out other
factors that can lead to big score shifts, such
as small classes and dramatic changes in class

Some school leaders accused of cheating have
attributed steep gains to exemplary teaching. But
experts said instruction isn't likely to move
scores to the degree seen in the AJC's analysis.

Through teaching alone, Wollack said, "it's going
to be pretty tough to have that sort of an

The AJC developed a statistical method to
identify school systems with far more unusual
tests than expected, which could signal endemic
cheating such as that which occurred in Atlanta.
The newspaper's score analysis used conservative
measures that highlighted extremes and were
likely to miss many instances of cheating.

Big-to-medium-sized cities and rural districts
harbored the highest concentrations of suspect
tests. No Child Left Behind may help explain why.
The law forced districts to contend with the
scores of poor and minority students in an
unprecedented way, judging schools by the
performance of such "subgroups" as well as by
overall achievement.

Hence, high-poverty schools faced some of the
most relentless pressure of the kind critics say
increases cheating.

Improbable scores were twice as likely to appear
in charter schools as regular schools. Charters,
which receive public money, can face intense
pressure as supposed laboratories of innovation
that, in theory, live or die by their academic

Common problems unite the big-city districts with
the most prevalent suspicious scores: Many faced
state takeovers if scores didn't improve quickly.
Teachers' pay or even their continued employment
sometimes depended on test performance. And their
students - mostly poor, mostly minority - were
among those needing the most help.

The analysis, for instance, flagged more than one
in six tests in St. Louis some years. In Detroit,
it was one in seven.

Dozens of school systems in mid-sized cities -
such as Gary, Ind., East St. Louis, Ill., and
Mobile, Ala. - exhibited high concentrations of
suspicious tests, too.

Though high-poverty city schools were more likely
to have suspicious tests, improbable scores also
showed up in an exclusive public school for the
gifted on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And
they appeared in a rural district roughly 70
miles south of Chicago with one school, dirt
roads and a women's prison.

The findings call into question the approach that
dominated federal education policy over the past
decade: Set a continuously rising bar and leave
schools and districts essentially alone to figure
out how to surmount it - or face penalties.

"If you want to keep your job, keep your school
out of the news, keep winning awards and advance
in your career, you need to make your school look
better," said Joseph Hawkins, a former testing
official with the Montgomery County, Md., school

Koretz, the Harvard expert, said cheating is one
extreme on a continuum that, at its other end,
includes gaming the test in legal ways - such as
through test-prep drills - that don't
significantly increase students' overall
knowledge or skills.

Even as state test scores have soared, students'
performance on national and international exams
has been more mediocre. Cheating and gaming may
help explain why.

"The big picture is: Are we seeing apparent gains
in student achievement that are bogus?" Koretz

Decade of tumult

Test scores show that instead of progressing
steadily in their academics, districts have
endured a decade of tumult.

In some of the nation's biggest cities, dynamic
district leaders preached "data-driven"
decision-making and even linked test scores to
bonuses or principal hiring and firing decisions.
Many boasted of taking a corporate approach to
education, focusing on student test achievement
as the single most important measure of success.

Some of the most persistently suspicious test
scores nationwide, however, occurred in districts
renowned for cutting-edge reforms.

In Atlanta, for instance, former Superintendent
Beverly Hall won national recognition as
Superintendent of the Year in 2009. State
investigators later confirmed scores that year
were widely manipulated by educators who assisted
students improperly and outright changed tens of
thousands of their answers on state tests.

In some Atlanta schools, cheating was an open
secret for years. After students turned in their
tests, teachers and administrators erased and
corrected their mistakes - even holding a
"changing party" at a teacher's home. In another
school, staff opened plastic wrap securing test
booklets with a razor, then melted the wrap shut
again after making forbidden copies.

State investigators accused a total of 38
principals with participating in test-tampering.
One allegedly wore gloves while erasing to avoid
leaving fingerprints.

Ultimately, the cheating supported a massive
effort to bolster the Atlanta superintendent's
image as a tough reformer who had turned around a
struggling system.

In 2002, Houston was the first winner of the
Broad Prize, which has become the most coveted
award in urban education. The Eli and Edythe
Broad Foundation praised Houston's intense focus
on test results. More recently, Houston has been
among the leaders in tying teacher pay to student
test scores.

But twice in the past seven years, the AJC found,
Houston exhibited fluctuations with virtually no
chance of occurring except through tampering.

In 2005, scores fell precipitously in five dozen
classes in 38 schools after a statistical
analysis by the Dallas Morning News suggested
test-tampering in Houston. The district fired
teachers and principals and improved test

In 2011, however, as three-fourths of Houston
teachers earned performance-based bonuses, scores
rose improbably in a similar number of classes in
the same number of schools. In the same year,
Houston confirmed nine cheating allegations and
fired or took other action against 21 employees.

Through Jason Spencer, a spokesman for the
district, Houston officials questioned whether
cheating caused all of the unusual score changes
the AJC found. He said the district doesn't think
its pay-for-performance plan has made cheating
more likely.

"We feel like we put a lot of safeguards in
place," he said, but added: "We know it happens.
We would never pretend it's not an issue."

Teachers and other school staff in Atlanta were
eligible for mostly small bonuses if scores hit
district targets. Perhaps more worrisome for
principals were the penalties: Former
Superintendent Hall boasted of replacing about 90
percent of principals and told new hires they had
three years to deliver high scores. Her mantra:
"no exceptions, no excuses."

Three studies of merit-pay programs did not show
they consistently produce higher test scores,
either legitimately or through cheating, said
Matthew Springer, director of the National Center
on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt

Yet, he added that "it's incredibly important
that we systematically monitor these programs for
opportunistic gaming of the system."

Pushback from officials

Some school districts and states have taken an
apathetic, if not defiant, stance in the face of
cheating accusations in recent years.

The AJC sent detailed findings to districts with
some of the most suspicious clusters of scores.
For those not already publicly looking at
cheating, the responses were similar: Officials
said they were unaware of most anomalies, but
protested characterizing the score changes as

Several local and state school officials objected
to conducting the analysis at all, saying it
doesn't consider enough variables.

Some districts simply denied any problems exist.
Detroit, for instance, claimed its scores were
not "unusual or out of line in any way" and that
Michigan officials had not identified
irregularities "with respect to an erasure
analysis, suspected cheating, or any other issue."

In fact, Michigan's education agency identified
six Detroit schools as having statistically
unlikely gains on a state test in 2009. At one
school, the state determined, sixth-graders
averaged 7.4 wrong-to-right erasures. Their peers
statewide averaged fewer than one such change.

Analyzing Detroit's scores from 2008 and 2009,
the AJC found suspicious swings in 14 percent of
classes. The statistical probability: zero.

Regardless, Detroit officials offered an
explanation that experts have said is among the
least likely: better teaching.

Steven Wasko, an assistant superintendent in
Detroit, said the district has offered before-
and after-school programs, expanded summer
school, and added extra reading and math
instruction. "Increases in student performance,"
Wasko said in an email, "could be attributed in
part to these factors."

In a statement, St. Louis school district
officials acknowledged the strangeness of score
changes, but disagreed that cheating was to
blame. They said neither the district nor state
education officials have any "credible evidence
that testing improprieties have occurred at the
schools in question."

Officials acknowledged, however, that the
district has a cheating investigation open at one
school. The state said that since 2010 it has
received allegations of cheating at two other St.
Louis schools identified as suspicious by the AJC
analysis. Accusations of cheating persist.

State officials say they do not screen test
scores for possible cheating and do not consider
unusually high gains to be a sign of
test-tampering - if schools provide an

"We hope to see great gains in our proficiency
levels," said Michele Clark, a spokeswoman for
the Missouri education department.

Dallas officials said that when irregularities
surfaced several years ago, they instituted new
test security measures and started screening for

Few big-city districts have attacked cheating as aggressively as Baltimore.

After he became the district's chief executive in
2007, Andrés Alonso heard a whistle-blower
complain at a PTA meeting about the district's
lax investigation into cheating allegations at
her school.

With accused educators sitting nearby, Alonso
recalled recently, the room became "a deafening

Alonso ordered a new investigation, which spread
into 15 other schools. The district posted
independent monitors in each school during tests.
In the suspected schools, scores fell
dramatically. In other schools, scores continued
to rise.

Alonso asked state officials to check test papers
for illicit erasures and changes. Their analysis
confirmed his suspicions.

At Fort Worthington Elementary, for instance, as
many as 20 mistakes were corrected on some
students' tests, often in a lighter shade of

All of Fort Worthington's classes posted
improbable gains in 2008, the AJC's analysis
shows. The performance level held for two more
years, when the school faced the threat of state
takeover. After the cheating was detected,
statistically unlikely score drops multiplied,
occurring in three-quarters of the school's
classes. Similar patterns show up across the

Sitting outside the school in her aging station
wagon one late winter day, Vernetta
Jones-Marshall said Fort Worthington is doing the
best it can.

"I don't even know if it was really a true
statement," Jones-Marshall, 57, said of the
cheating allegations as she waited to pick up her
son, a fifth-grader. "We didn't make a big deal
about it."

Cheating is a big deal to Alonso, however.

Most educators act with integrity, he said, but
others "feel a sense of impunity" because school
officials haven't always held cheaters

"I was doing this before the Atlanta story
broke," he said. "This was me feeling that
nothing mattered more than the integrity of the
school system."

Call for vigilance

Leaders need to maintain that tough stance even
after cheating disappears from the headlines,
experts say.

In Dallas, for instance, the score analysis shows
the number of suspicious gains dropped after
cheating allegations surfaced in late 2004 - but
then began inching up again a few years later.

For years, Los Angeles' scores were among the
least suspicious for big-city districts. But when
California stopped conducting routine erasure
analysis in 2008 for budget reasons, the number
of improbable score changes in L.A. climbed

States and districts find little advice when they
do decide to conduct erasure or statistical
screenings of test scores.

Federal education officials and testing experts
have begun working on new recommendations for
detecting and investigating test-score anomalies.

Wollack, the Wisconsin testing expert, said there
is room to improve. "Some of the investigations
that have taken place in the past have been less
than thorough, have been less exhaustive than
they should have been," he said. "Cheating went
undetected as a result."

Districts don't have a big incentive to unearth
ugly truths about their own testing programs.
What's more, most screening methods miss
instances of cheating by setting high thresholds
in an effort not to falsely identify innocent

"It's clear there are schools, there are
districts, that are under that threshold that are
still engaged in some level of misconduct,"
Wollack said.

Critics of testing have complained for years that
increased pressure brought on by accountability
measures leads to more testing abuses.

Education historian and New York University
Professor Diane Ravitch said the incessant focus
on testing has eroded the quality of instruction.

"All of this is predictable," said Ravitch, a
former top U.S. Department of Education official
who in recent years reversed her support for
testing and tough accountability measures. "We're
warping the education system in order to meet
artificial targets."

Through programs such as Race to the Top, federal
education officials have pushed states to adopt
more aggressive teacher evaluation systems that,
typically, consider test scores.

"Whatever the stakes were under No Child Left
Behind," Ravitch said, "they are going to be much
higher, now that teachers are being told your
scores are going to be public and you're going to
be fired if they don't go up X number of years in
a row."

But Daria Hall, of the Education Trust, said most
educators don't cheat, and testing data is
essential for determining if students have basic
skills - such as the ability to read.

"What parent doesn't want to know how their child
is doing in reading and in math? What teacher
doesn't want to know how their student is doing?"
she said. "You can't take away the source of the
information. We have to make the information

Crisis of confidence

For parents, questions of academic integrity can
lead to a crisis of confidence.

The chronically low-performing Nashville district
illustrates the conundrum. Test scores in some of
the district's schools have alternately soared
and swooped to improbable degrees. Sixth-graders
at Two Rivers Middle School ranked among the 10
worst in reading scores in the state in 2010, for
instance. One year later, as seventh-graders,
they skyrocketed to among the top 25 percent.

Nashville school officials said the data raises
concerns about their effectiveness as educators,
but not cheating. They echoed other districts'
objections to the analysis, including their
relatively high percentage of students learning
English and the number of students changing
schools from one year to the next.

In Hermitage, a working-class section east of
downtown Nashville, Megan McGowan said she was
torn about whether to send her son to Dupont
Tyler Middle School.

Tests carry too much weight, she said, and
teachers face tremendous pressure to produce
results. Still, she said, cheating is
inexcusable. If it happened at Dupont Tyler, she
said, she'd think twice about sending her son

"I expect teachers to be ethical," she said.
PHOTO SIDEBAR: St. Louis: Patrick Henry Downtown
Academy's principal was placed on leave last year
for falsifying attendance records. Because
attendance rates are used to calculate state
funding, it's possible the alleged fraud
attracted state aid to the school that it didn't
deserve. Even though the state has not found
cheating at Henry, an AJC analysis uncovered
unusual scores dating back to 2007. Hyosub Shin,


Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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