Questions arise about pressures of state test

Some link cheating to stress from MSA


This time last year, state school officials had seen their usual share of routine test concerns, such as exam booklets that weren't returned promptly.

But after an announcement last week that another school had violated state test rules - the third such incident this year, this time at an elementary in Kent County - some are questioning whether cheating or breaking the state's test rules have become more prevalent and whether pressure to do well on these exams is the source of the problem.

This spring, at least three school systems - Carroll, Charles and Kent - have seen serious enough incidents of test security violations with the Maryland School Assessment to warrant reassignments, suspensions and the prospect of more severe state action such as fines.

Last year, no school systems faced such serious consequences, state education officials said.

"While these incidents are regrettable and inappropriate, they are isolated," Gary Heath, assistant state superintendent for accountability and assessment, said Friday. "But we're going to follow up and make sure other people aren't getting ideas to do things they shouldn't do."

Heath said his office's test security committee is scheduled to meet today to review investigation reports from the three school systems and to weigh possible sanctions - which could range from warning letters to fines.

State education officials would not confirm whether other districts have violated test rules this year. While officials don't consider recent incidents a sign of things to come, they are seriously contemplating ways to stiffen the procedures to prevent infractions.

"I don't think [cheating] is a trend yet. But it is something clearly that we have to watch," Heath said. "We take this all very seriously."

Among other things, Heath's office is evaluating new technologies that make it harder to cheat on exams such as the Maryland School Assessment and considering whether training materials for test proctors need to be revised. He added that the test security committee is always looking for ways to protect the integrity of the tests.

State education officials use MSA results to determine whether schools - and school systems - have made sufficient progress to meet 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, and to high school students in English and geometry, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

"We're going to make sure that we can defend our scores," Heath said.

Last month, the principal of Dr. Gustavus Brown Elementary in Charles County was placed on administrative leave because of allegations that she violated testing procedures, according to school officials there.

Also last month, the principal and three teachers from Rock Hall Elementary in Kent County were removed from school because of test violations, state education officials confirmed last week.

In Carroll, Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said that a teacher at Linton Springs Elementary in Sykesville admitted that she had taken notes from the fourth-grade MSA reading exam last year while she was employed at another Carroll school and created a worksheet to help her pupils review for this year's tests.

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. These teachers alerted the principal to similarities between the worksheet and this year's test.

Educators in Maryland are prohibited from copying, reproducing, using or otherwise disclosing any secure test materials.

Heath stressed that the vast majority of Maryland's educators are honest and follow the rules.

"We have 25,000 to 30,000 teachers involved in the testing program," he said. "To have four or five significant issues out of 25,000 isn't a whole lot."

But Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said, "It's clear there is enormous pressure on teachers to get the scores up, in part because of No Child Left Behind."

His organization maintains that "single-shot tests" such as the MSA should not be used to make high-stakes decisions such as adequate yearly progress.

"When you construct a system that puts too much weight on the tests, under this kind of pressure, people are going to start doing things that amount to cheating," Neill said during a recent interview.

Daniel Kaufman, communications director with the Maryland State Teachers Union, said that while he believes the recent incidents are isolated, he knows that educators are increasingly stressed and frustrated.

"A lot of teachers are telling us that they feel their creativity and imagination to teach is being overcome by this wave of high-stakes testing," Kaufman said. "In an environment like that, things happen."

Ecker said he suspects that if the teacher at Linton Springs Elementary hadn't shared her worksheet with another teacher and that teacher with others, the test violation might never have been discovered. He reprimanded the Linton Springs teacher and the teacher at Mount Airy who passed along the worksheet by removing them from their classrooms.

Ecker said he applauds the teachers who reported their suspicions about the violations, but that he worries the problem might only get worse.

"The higher the stakes become, some teachers may resort to these kinds of activities," said Ecker. But "I would hope that if anyone knows of a violation, they would have courage enough to do the right thing and report it."

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