Cheating can tempt test givers

March 21, 2007|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun reporter

As pressure grows for students, teachers and administrators to increase performance on high-stakes standardized tests, so has the temptation to cheat.

It led the Maryland State Department of Education to randomly dispatch monitors to 45 schools to ensure security of the annual Maryland State Assessment tests, which end today.

Officials say the testing has gone smoothly, in contrast to reports of cheating last year - including incidents in Carroll and Charles counties.

School systems often use monitors to combat an escalating number of teacher-assisted cheating cases, according to Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the Cambridge, Mass.-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

"When test scores become the sole goal of education, there is immense pressure to get the scores needed, by hook and by crook," Schaeffer said. "As the pressure [increases], more and more people are pushed over the ethical line."

Schaeffer said he learns of at least two new incidents of teacher-assisted cheating in the United States each week.

Last March, two Carroll County fourth-grade teachers resigned after school officials discovered the pair had distributed copies of questions from a state test to teachers and students before an exam.

One teacher admitted to taking notes from a fourth-grade MSA reading exam while she was employed at another school the previous year and creating a worksheet for her pupils, according to officials. She shared the worksheet with another teacher who distributed it to other teachers. Those teachers, who did not know the questions had been copied, later alerted a principal to similarities between the worksheet and the test.

Two weeks earlier, a Charles County elementary school principal was placed on administrative leave after allegations that she violated testing procedures, according to school officials there.

Despite those incidents, Gary Heath, Maryland's assistant state superintendent for accountability and assessments, believes that state schools are highly ethical.

"I think we do better than the average citizen does on their taxes," Heath said. "Schools are very good about this. It is part of what schools are about - helping them [students] out with ethics, helping them out with what is right and what is wrong."

As of yesterday, Heath said, the monitors had not reported cheating-related incidents in the reading and math tests given to about 400,000 Maryland pupils in third through eighth grades.

"It doesn't mean that things do not happen on occasion," Heath said. "[But] there is very little inappropriate behavior going on."

Terry Alban, executive director of strategic planning, assessment and program evaluation for the Howard County school system, welcomes the monitors.

"It's not bad," said Alban, who added that a monitor had visited an elementary school last week. "It reminds people of the importance of the policy" and that it is being administered properly.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education sent out monitors to 3,120 schools this month - for the first time - to observe the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests. The New Jersey Department of Education increased its monitors by an undisclosed number. And the District of Columbia public school system plans to use additional monitors.

"We welcome the monitoring," said Sheila Ballen, director of communications for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. "It sets up an extra level of security. We have the utmost confidence in our teachers, schools and administrators."

State assessment tests have added weight because of the federal No Child Left Behind Law, which requires schools to increase assessment test scores each year.

The yardstick of the law, "adequate yearly progress," is based on assessment scores and is used to determine whether parents can transfer their children to higher-performing schools. It can also affect federal funding.

"The schools and the districts feel pressure," said Wendy Roberts, director of assessment and analysis for the Delaware Department of Education. "Whether that pressure would lead to some unethical behavior, I don't know. I suppose it's possible that it could."

Last spring, a high school math teacher and head football coach employed in Delaware's Appoquinimink School District was suspended after more than 270 students received questions on a standardized math test ahead of time, according to the Associated Press.

Fifteen security incidents - six involving teachers - were reported to the Delaware Department of Education last spring, Roberts said.

Delaware did not plan to dispatch monitors to observe this month as 80,000 students take a state assessment test.

In New Jersey, the state's Department of Education increased the number of monitors this year. A cheating scandal in 2005 at two Camden elementary schools resulted in the resignation of two administrators, and a statistical analysis of 2005-2006 scores showed that close to 40 schools had unexplained significant changes in students' test scores.

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