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Education Reporter

Educators Tamper With Tests
Standardized test scores are up in several states, but so are suspicions of teacher and administrator test tampering. At least six states have announced investigations into cheating this year, and more may be on the way.

Three teachers, the principal and assistant principal all resigned from Normandy Crossing Elementary school outside Houston in May after it was discovered they provided students with a detailed study guide of questions on the state science test. The educators obtained the questions by using a technique known as "tubing," whereby they squeezed the plastic surrounding a test booklet to form a tube through which they could read and copy test questions without breaking the seal.

Massachusetts revoked the charter for Robert M. Hughes Academy in May after it was discovered that the principal told teachers to look over students' shoulders and point out wrong answers on 2009 standardized tests. In March, an independent panel described how a Norfolk, Virginia principal pressured teachers to use an overhead projector to display answers to a state reading assessment administered to special education students.

The most sweeping scandal reported so far was in Georgia, where the state school board ordered investigations of 191 schools in February. A computer analysis detected pencil erasures, and flagged as suspicious classrooms in which the change from incorrect to correct answers was far above the statistical norm. So far eleven teachers and administrators may lose their licenses for changing test answers, and more disciplinary referrals are expected, including at least a dozen schools in Atlanta alone. Indiana and Nevada have also reported educator cheating.

Many experts blame the federal No Child Left Behind legislation for the increasing pressure to show annual academic improvement. Though the mandated improvement levels were intentionally low in the earlier years, the law requires that public schools bring all students up to grade level by 2014, and the standards are now more difficult to meet. Penalties for failure are also increasing: teachers and administrators can be fired and schools can be taken over by the state or contracted out to private education firms.

State and local officials add to the performance sticks and carrots. Last month Colorado passed a law making teacher tenure dependent on student test results. Houston recently decided to use the data to identify experienced teachers for possible dismissal. New York City will use test scores to make tenure decisions for novice educators, and almost a dozen states have plans to evaluate teachers at least partly on student scores. Many school districts already link teacher and administrator bonuses to test results.

John Fremer, a data forensics specialist hired to assist with scandals in Georgia and Texas, believes educator fraud is rising. "Every time you increase the stakes associated with any testing program, you get more cheating," he said. Economist Steven D. Levitt, author of Freakonomics, agrees. He and a colleague studied answer sheets from Chicago public schools in the 1990s after the introduction of high-stakes testing; they concluded that four to five percent of elementary teachers cheat.

Others say there are dishonest practitioners in every profession, and that high-stakes testing is not to blame. Gregory J. Cizek, an education professor at the University of North Carolina who studies cheating, said past violations were often swept under the rug. "One of the real problems is states have no incentive to pursue this kind of problem," he said.

Now retired, Crawford Lewis was superintendent in 2008 when a Georgia principal and assistant principal colluded to alter student answer sheets at Atherton Elementary in suburban Atlanta. The school had met the adequate yearly progress goals of the NCLB act for seven years, but stumbled when the bar was raised again that year. The scoring gains were so spectacular at Atherton and a handful of other schools that the Atlanta Journal Constitution noted the improvements approached a statistical impossibility.

Lewis remembers how the Atherton administrators broke down in tears under questioning. He now calls for moving away from high-stakes testing because he says it introduces enormous pressures and distorted incentives for teachers. "I don't say there's any excuse for doing what was done, but I believe the problem is going to intensify before it gets better." (New York Times, 6-11-10)

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