Catching the cheaters

March 08, 2005|By Robert C. Embry Jr.

TEST SCORES are increasingly important to Maryland's public schools, which are being held accountable for student pass rates on numerous exams because of the No Child Left Behind legislation and Maryland's new graduation requirements. This public accountability raises a question about the reliability of test scores.

In an article in the Oct. 27 issue of Education Week, Yale Professor Robert Sternberg asserted, "Because the stakes for high scores are so high, schools are inadvertently encouraged to fudge the data. They have started to cheat."

In Texas, the Houston school system recently formed a task force of 600 city employees to monitor tests in an effort to prevent cheating in response to allegations of widespread cheating. The Dallas Morning News found strong evidence that educators were helping students cheat at dozens of Houston schools and nearly 400 schools statewide.

Teachers and principals are among the most respected members of our society, but the pressures and laxity of the test systems make them vulnerable to challenges as to the accuracy of the tests that are used to measure their work.

Test security is taken seriously in Baltimore City and throughout Maryland. The Baltimore public school system and the Maryland State Department of Education have controls and procedures in place to prevent cheating on standardized tests.

Each school designates a test coordinator who is trained before each test about the process for its administration. There are instructions about who can have access to the tests and when access is permitted, steps for administering the test and guidance about how to return the tests. The rules are in lengthy, well-organized manuals that cover every eventuality.

But the weak link in Maryland's test security system is in monitoring adherence to the rules.

There are many opportunities for cheating when the tests are in school buildings. Tests must be received by the school about two weeks before testing so the school's designated test coordinator can prepare. Tests stay in the buildings for a time after testing to allow students who were absent to take them, and they are supposed to be locked up. Test coordinators and test administrators sign pledges to follow all rules; sanctions for cheating can be as severe as the loss of their job and certification.

Adequately monitoring all rules would be an enormous task, but monitoring is particularly important when the test results are used for such high-stakes rewards and sanctions. Test results never have been more important in the lives of teachers and principals than they are in public schools today.

Particularly troubling is when a for-profit firm such as Edison Schools Inc., which operates three public schools in Baltimore, is compensated in part based on its test scores - information that is solely under Edison's control with no external monitoring.

Some monitoring exists in Maryland, but it is sporadic. Monitors may believe their appearances keep school staffs from cheating because the visits are unannounced, but schools are adept at silently informing everyone throughout the building if an official is visiting. There is little, if any, monitoring during the critical periods before and after testing when the tests are housed in the schools.

But the meager amount of monitoring does reduce cheating. For the city or state to monitor testing enough to seriously limit or preclude cheating would require one monitor to every two or three teachers during testing and a monitor in each building throughout the day when the tests are in the buildings before and after testing.

One method of reducing the required amount of monitoring would be to reduce the time that the tests are in the schools. Completed tests could be shipped for scoring immediately after the exams and absentees' tests could be shipped as they are finished. Sealing each test booklet before use could deter illegal use of tests before testing.

It's not inconceivable that some teachers would be willing to risk losing everything. High scores bring positive attention and even additional state funding, while low scores bring shame and what is perceived as unwanted interference from the state.

The potential for cheating warrants attention by the state Board of Education so it can weigh the costs and benefits of measures to reduce the opportunities for cheating and reassure the overwhelming majority of teachers and principals who are following the rules that everyone is doing so.

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, is a former president of the Maryland State Board of Education.

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