Testing service hides cheating, fails to take timely action State and local officials have been refused access to information by ETS

September 28, 1997|By Douglas Frantz and Jon Nordheimer | Douglas Frantz and Jon Nordheimer,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Richard Weston was skeptical.

The man on the telephone said he was a Louisiana teacher and had a stolen copy of the standardized test that Weston's company, Educational Testing Service, administers to teachers who want to be school principals. As the caller read off question after question, Weston's skepticism turned to alarm.

Weston, a security manager for the world's largest and most influential testing organization, said that he was very interested and that a security team from the service outside Princeton, N.J., would come to see the teacher as soon as possible.

Three days later, Weston and two other senior managers of the testing service were in Louisiana confronting a situation that was even worse than they had thought.

Copies of the test's 145 multiple-choice questions, along with correct answers, had circulated among teachers throughout southern Louisiana, probably for years. In a state mired at or near the bottom of almost every educational ranking, teachers had cheated their way into running public elementary, middle and high schools.

Potential scandal quieted

But when ETS faced this situation last fall, in what could have been one of the worst public scandals of its history, the testing service decided to keep it quiet.

State and local education officials said they were refused information on the extent of the cheating. Instead of publicly disclosing the possibility that unqualified cheaters were running schools in southern Louisiana, the testing service quietly notified at least 200 teachers who had passed the exam that they had to take the test again to "confirm" their earlier scores.

Rather than an isolated incident, the situation that ETS officials found in Louisiana and how they reacted to it fit a pattern uncovered in a four-month examination by the New York Times of the huge nonprofit company that runs most educational testing in the United States, from the SAT for college-bound high school students to tests for licenses and certification in 34 professions.

In numerous instances across the country, ETS has confronted case after case of cheating but withheld information from the public and failed to take aggressive steps in time to ensure the integrity of its tests, according to internal documents and interviews with current and former officials there.

The questions about ETS come just as Americans seem obsessed with testing. President Clinton is pushing national testing for millions of students, competition is increasing for admission to the best universities, and a growing number of people must pass a test to get a job or win a promotion.

Policing is difficult

The stumbles of the service illustrate how difficult it is, even for the dominant company, to police cheating in this golden age of testing.

While the organization professes zero tolerance when it comes to suspected cheating, its critics, including former ETS officials, say the company is all too eager to sweep its dirt under the rug to protect its lion's share of the testing business instead of spending the money to tighten security.

In many cases, the company's insular culture dictates that lapses of testing security remain hidden behind the curtain of customer privacy and test confidentiality.

"The tendency has been to lean over backwards to keep matters pertaining to test security sort of under wraps," said Winton Manning, a former senior vice president who retired in 1995 after more than 25 years at ETS.

"There is a certain amount of good business sense to that. Admissions officers and deans would begin to wonder just how reliable are these folks if they knew everything," Manning said.

Senior officials at ETS defended their handling of cheating incidents and said they had been as forthcoming as possible, given the constraints of privacy and test integrity involved.

In the Louisiana case, they said they provided state officials with as much information as they could but acknowledged that they were unable to answer their most pressing questions.

"What those local authorities want is evidence of who cheated, and that's not what we have," said Nancy Cole, the ETS president. "We don't think we have the evidence to say effectively to the state who cheated and who didn't cheat. But we're pretty sure that we got rid of the bulk of the scores that included most of the people who cheated."

Old method of cheating

Even ETS' push into the new world of computerized testing suffered a serious security lapse. In 1993, its computerized test for graduate-school admission was found to be vulnerable to one of the oldest cheating techniques: People who had taken the test were able to remember enough questions to reconstruct almost the entire examination.

Unlike paper tests, which are given only a few times a year, computerized tests are offered anytime. And if the tests use the same questions day after day for months, they are much more vulnerable to cheaters who can memorize the questions.

Internal ETS records show that in the rush to gain an early foothold in computerized testing, company executives ignored warnings from their own test experts about the risk of using a single set of questions, and later misled New York legislators by saying that the testing service was using multiple sets of questions.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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