Report: Suspicious test scores found at schools nationwide

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation released Sunday found that nearly 200 school districts across the country had suspicious test scores, indicating that widespread cheating may be occurring across the country.

In an unprecedented examination of the integrity of school testing, the AJC analyzed test results from 69,000 public schools, finding high concentrations of suspect math or reading scores in school systems nationwide.

Last year a Georgia investigation found that at least 178 educators in Atlanta took part in a test-tampering scandal. The nearly 200 schools nationwide that the AJC looked at had suspicious test scores that resembled the cheating scandal in Atlanta, which has been described as the largest cheating scandal in U.S. history.

The AJC “developed a statistical method to identify school systems with far more unusual tests than expected,” which could indicate cheating similar to 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,” said the ACJ.

The ACJ notes, “Even as state test scores have soared, students’ performance on national and international exams has been more mediocre.” Cheating may be the correct explanation.

Supporters and critics of standardized testing both point to ever-increasing pressure to raise test scores as a motivator for widespread cheating. This pressure is especially apparent in poorer school districts, the very schools that the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to fix.

No Child Left Behind forced school districts to deal with the scores of poor and minority students in an “unprecedented” way by judging them by the performance of these “subgroups” as well as overall achievement.

The investigation found that large-to-medium-sized cities and rural districts had the highest concentrations of suspicious test scores.

Big-city districts with the most prevalent suspicious scores had some common themes : “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 investigation also found that improbable scores were twice as likely to appear in charter schools as regular schools. Charter schools face intense pressure to achieve high test scores because of their status as laboratories of innovation that live or die by their academic performances.

Significantly, some of the most suspicious test scores came from districts known for cutting-edge education reforms. Many of these districts preached “data-driven” decision-making, taking a corporate approach to education. For example, some of these schools link test scores to bonuses or principal hiring and firing decisions.

At Patrick Henry Downtown Academy in St. Louis, airy red brick towers rising above the school belie a grimmer reality. 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 and discipline problems. The former principal was accused by Missouri officials of cheating last year. The state didn’t publicly question Henry’s test scores, but the AJC found suspicious scores at the academy dating back to 2007.

The ACJ notes that at Patrick Henry Downtown Academy in 2010, “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 math.”

When presented with the findings, many school districts remained apathetic, or even defiant, and the common response to the accusations was, according to the investigators, that they were “unaware of most anomalies.”

For example, Detroit school officials claimed that there was nothing unusual about the city’s test scores and that the state of Michigan couldn’t find any irregularities — ignoring the fact that Michigan’s education agency did detect six Detroit schools with statistically unlikely gains in 2009.

Daniel Koretz, a Harvard Graduate School of Education testing expert, told the ACJ, “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.”

It’s not only explicit cheating that may be skewing test results. Koretz noted that “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.”

The ACJ findings cast some doubt on the current approach of federal education policy over the past decade.

Joseph Hawkins, a former testing official with the Montgomery County, Md. school system said, “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.”

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