Pair said to cheat on MSA

Ecker says teachers in Carroll removed from classroom for copying state test

March 28, 2006|By GINA DAVIS | GINA DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

Two Carroll County fourth-grade teachers have been removed from their classrooms after officials discovered the pair had circulated copies of questions from a state achievement test to other teachers and pupils before the exam, a form of cheating that critics say is rooted in the pressure on schools to perform well on the annual assessments.

Carroll schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said yesterday that a teacher at Linton Springs Elementary in Sykesville admitted that she had taken notes from the fourth-grade Maryland State Assessment reading exam last year while she was employed at another Carroll school and created worksheets for her pupils for this year's tests, which were given from March 13-22.

She shared the worksheet with a teacher at Mount Airy Elementary, who passed it along to other fourth-grade Mount Airy teachers who did not know the questions had been copied from the MSA test, Ecker said. These teachers alerted the principal to similarities between the worksheets and this year's test.

State education officials use the results of the test to determine whether schools - and school systems - have made sufficient progress to meet specified benchmarks, known as adequate yearly progress. Schools that repeatedly fail to progress face escalating sanctions.

Schools administer the MSA to children from third through eighth grade in math and reading, as well as to high school students in English and geometry, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Ecker declined to identify the two teachers because the disciplinary action taken against them is a personnel matter. He wouldn't disclose the expected duration of their removal from classrooms but said they likely will appeal his decision.

"I am disappointed and saddened that these two teachers violated the trust and confidence of their fellow teachers, their students, the parents, and the general community," Ecker said. "It calls into question our reputation of having a good school system."

Ecker and other local school officials say that the federal legislation has prompted a renewed commitment to every child's educational progress.

But others, who say that they are seeing pressure to do well in school systems across the country, are worried that the consequences of that pressure are compromising education.

"This is not new and it's not unique to Maryland. It's tragic," said Francis Fennell, an education professor at McDaniel College in Westminster and president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "We're a culture that places a high priority on this kind of testing. ... It places a priority on the test scores of 9-year-olds that is way out of sync with the total picture of what a fourth-grader ought to be learning."

Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said some teachers, feeling the pressure to help their students produce high scores, "will, by hook or crook, do whatever it takes.

"This is not to excuse the teachers [who cheat]," Neill said. "We think the amount of cheating is going up, but we have no evidence that there are any more than a small amount of teachers and principals engaging in cheating."

While local school officials have considered a "pay for performance" system that would reward - or penalize - teachers based on how well their students perform on standardized tests, such a system does not exist in Carroll, Ecker said.

"They shouldn't have felt [under pressure to boost scores], especially since students at those two schools have performed very high in recent years," Ecker said. "You could understand it more [in a pay-for-performance system], but it wouldn't excuse it."

Local school officials declined to specify which rules the two teachers had violated, but Maryland State Department of Education rules prohibit giving test takers access to test items or materials before testing. Educators also are prohibited from copying, reproducing, using or otherwise disclosing any portion of secure test materials.

Ecker said teachers are allowed to provide review materials for students, but those materials cannot be identical to the exam, parts of which are the same from year to year.

Gregory Bricca, Carroll's research and accountability director, said he couldn't be more specific about the teachers' violations because the school system considers its investigation to be continuing until state education officials determine what kind of sanctions the district might face.

Carroll could face sanctions that include invalidating students' scores, requiring students to retake the exam or censuring the schools or the school system. In addition, offending teachers can be suspended or fired and have their teaching certificates revoked.

"We have to wait for everything to come back from the school system, which does its own investigation. Any reprimand would depend on the situation," said Bill Reinhard, State Department of Education spokesman.

Carroll school officials said they anticipate that at the least, the scores of 170 pupils - 23 at Linton Springs and 147 at Mount Airy - could be invalidated.

"We think the state will give the students their scores, but when it comes to determining [adequate yearly progress] their scores will show up as zeroes," Ecker said. "That could mean Mount Airy, in particular, may not make AYP."

Dana Buswell, president of Mount Airy's PTA, said she was disappointed by news of the compromised tests. But she pointed to revelations that it was Mount Airy teachers who reported their suspicions about the worksheets.

"That's what speaks volumes for their integrity," she said. "Our teachers hold themselves to a high standard."

gina.davis@baltsun.com

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