As The Tests Become Important, Are More Schools Cheating?
Despite the high stakes attached to its multimillion-dollar statewide school testing program, new allegations of cheating show that Connecticut--like many other states--relies almost entirely on local districts to spot and report fraud.
An apparent cheating scandal at a Waterbury elementary school on the Connecticut Mastery Test came to light only after Waterbury officials alerted that state last month that something was amiss.
The State Department of Education does not routinely conduct the kind of analysis that would have spotted the suspicious spike in scores or the unusually high number of test booklet erasures that occurred at Hopeville School, said Barbara Beaudin, head of the department's assessment division.
With 1,100 schools statewide, the department does not have the capacity to review every school and every grade, she said.
"We don't do that here. We rely on our [local] districts to see if there is anything unusual" about the scores, she said. "We don't have a program we run that would identify a certain number of erasures."
Waterbury officials suspended 15 teachers and two administrators pending the outcome of the investigation of what appears to be the most serious ethical breach in the 26-year history of the Mastery Test. The test of reading, mathematics and writing is given annually to children in grades three through eight and is the state's chief benchmark of educational progress.
The incident illustrates the extent to which the state depends on local school districts to review scores and preserve the integrity of the test--a $12 million-a-year enterprise--and raises questions about the pressure on schools and teachers to produce good results. Student scores on standardized tests can have far-reaching effects, from an educator's career to an entire school district's reputation.
Nevertheless, allowing local school districts to monitor themselves is a common practice in many states, said Audrey Beardsley, an Arizona State University professor who specializes in standardized testing.
"It's almost a backward system because the state is the one that has no stake" in local results, she said. "It should be the one monitoring the test. Really, there are very minimum efforts in place to monitor this type of cheating."
Connecticut is one of dozens of states where reports of cheating on school tests have surfaced, often after questions were raised by parties outside the education system.
In Georgia, an investigation by the governor's office revealed widespread cheating in Atlanta's public schools, saying that cheating was found among teachers and principals in nearly 80 percent of schools that were examined. It was issued two years after the Atlanta Journal Constitution first questioned the striking test score increases in the city.
In Pennsylvania, state officials started an investigation after The Notebook, a nonprofit Philadelphia-based community news service, unearthed a previously unreported state study showing that dozens of schools had unusually high numbers of erasures on state achievement tests.
In an extensive analysis of test results in six states and the District of Columbia, USA Today published a report earlier this year that found more than 1,600 examples of potentially suspicious spikes in scores on standardized state achievement tests.
"Certainly, in the last several years, the number of reported incidents has exploded," said Bob Schaeffer, an official with FairTest, a national advocacy organization that has criticized what it calls the misuse of high-stakes standardized tests. The group has documented reports of cheating in 30 states, he said.
"The pressure is so great to improve test scores, the message is you have to get scores up by any means necessary," he said.
Schaeffer said some state testing contracts include provisions for a basic statistical analysis to spot unusual test score fluctuations or excessive erasures. "More and more states are considering doing it because of the revelations" of cheating, he said.
Connecticut's contract with Measurement Incorporated, a North Carolina testing firm, does not include such a provision, but Beaudin plans to meet with company officials "to see what options we have, given that this has raised the level of concern.
"We want to sort out what we could be doing, particularly in light of the high stakes for schools and districts and kids."
Meanwhile, as a result of the Hopeville allegations, the state hired the Hartford law firm of Siegel, O'Connor, O'Donnell & Beck to conduct an independent investigation.
At Hopeville, the irregularities were so striking that officials immediately suspected wrongdoing on this year's test and now are looking at the possibility that cheating may have occurred in earlier years, too, according to Beaudin.