No cheating allowed

Our view: Washington scandal puts a spotlight on questionable student test results

April 04, 2011

Baltimore school officials ought to take a close look at a recent USA Today investigation that found more than 100 schools in the District of Columbia had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests on which wrong answers had been erased and changed to right ones. Just because a cheating scandal happened there doesn't mean we have one here, and Baltimore officials have reacted more swiftly and decisively than their Washington counterparts did to the few instances of questionable test scores we have seen here. But the newspaper's work suggests additional steps city school officials can and should take to make sure no such taint attaches to rising achievement among Baltimore City students.

Baltimore so far has had only a handful of problems with principals or teachers allegedly tampering with student test scores. The most recent occurred at George Washington Elementary School during the 2007-2008 school year, when hundreds of test booklets were found to contain a pattern of erasures that suggested someone had systematically altered the answers to make it appear students' performance on the exams had improved drastically, much like what appears to have happened on a wide scale in Washington. To their credit, city schools CEO Andrés Alonso and state schools superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick initiated an investigation and replaced the school's principal.

The USA Today report was based on a similar pattern of erasures, which can be detected by the same electronic scanners the testing company uses to score results. When a student changes answers, the erased marks leave a trace, which the machines tally along with the new answers for each question. In Washington's case, investigators calculated that the odds against so many wrong answers being replaced by correct ones were less than the chances of a student winning the Powerball lottery.

The reaction of Washington schools officials and former Chancellor Michelle Rhee are just as troubling as the questionable test scores themselves. Although they have now agreed to review the data, they initially insisted that nothing was wrong. Furthermore, they were informed about the high erasure rates by the test scoring company well before USA Today began its examination, and they not only failed to investigate the schools but handed out bonuses to many of the principals and teachers there. Ms. Rhee, in a statement after USA Today's initial article ran, blamed the "enemies of school reform" for refusing to believe test score gains could be genuine.

In Baltimore, only a handful of complaints have led to investigations of cheating. Last year, the city increased the level of monitoring during testing at 13 schools, where all aspects of the process were closely scrutinized. The city employed an independent monitor at each school who sealed all the boxes containing tests at the end of the day with a tamper-resistant security tape. The box could only be opened by the independent monitor, so there should have been no chance of anyone erasing or changing answer sheets after the tests were collected. This year, the enhanced monitoring process was extended to all city schools.

School officials insist that maintaining the integrity of test results is a top priority if city students' accomplishments are to stand on their own. It's unfair to the kids to have a cloud over their work because of doubts about whether cheating was involved. Instead of trying to catch cheaters after the fact, the current monitoring system seeks to prevent it from ever happening.

But the emphasis on standardized testing puts tremendous pressure on principals and teachers to show results. The temptation to cheat may be one of the unfortunate unintended consequences of a system that relies so heavily on test scores to evaluate student progress, teacher performance and staff compensation.

We hope Baltimore will never have to endure the kind of testing scandal Washington's school system is currently facing. But that won't come from resting on its laurels and assuming enhanced monitoring means it can't happen here. Baltimore should continue to monitor erasure patterns and to make that information available to the public. We have no reason to suspect that the gains shown here aren't genuine, and publishing that information would serve only to eliminate any possibility of suspicion.

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