State board orders investigations into cheating suspicions

The state school board Thursday ordered immediate investigations of 191 Georgia schools facing questions of tampering with last spring's standardized tests.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, began work on a proposal to make test cheating a crime. And in Atlanta, where the state's analysis raised suspicions about 69 percent of the city's elementary and middle schools, Superintendent Beverly Hall promised a thorough review.

"We will look at every class and every school,” Hall said in an interview. “If we find somebody did something wrong -- no one will have to ask me to take care of it. I will take care of it.”

She sent home a letter to parents Thursday

The Governor's Office of Student Achievement released a report Wednesday about a statewide analysis of erasure marks on student answer sheets, cautioning the public to wait for further investigative results before forming an opinion. On Thursday, however, educators and lawmakers alike worried damage had already been done.

"These are allegations right now," said state Sen. Freddie Sims (D-Dawson), a retired educator. Her district includes Dougherty County, where 14 of 26 schools made the list. "But I'm trying to absorb that a whole system may have been implicated in a possible cheating scandal."

The board's unanimous vote required local systems to investigate schools deemed by the state to have test results of "moderate" or "severe" concern for erasures on the state's Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. The tests are used to help determine whether schools met federal benchmarks. Schools of "moderate concern" had 11 percent to 24 percent of their classrooms exhibiting suspicious erasures. "Severe" schools had suspicious erasures in 25 percent or more of classrooms -- with some stretching beyond 75 percent.

Results are due back to the state before the end of the school year in late May and could come as early as April 1. State officials said they could accept those results or investigate further.

The board also required extra precautions to be taken during spring testing season, which usually happens in April. State testing monitors will be sent to each of the 74 "severe" schools. State monitors will conduct random checks at the 117 "moderate" schools.

Schools in either of those categories will have to randomly rotate teachers to different classrooms during testing; teachers cannot be proctors for their own students. At an additional 178 schools, about which the state had "minimal" concerns, teachers will either have to rotate or take additional steps to ensure proper monitoring. "Minimal" schools had 6 percent to 10 percent of classrooms flagged. Kathleen Mathers, the student achievement office's executive director, said the state average was 4 percent.

State officials said they had no concerns about 80 percent of the state's elementary and middle schools. These additional requirements of the other 20 percent are meant to focus their attention. "It's amazing how a 2×4 gets people's attention, isn't it?" state school board member Jose Perez said.

Yet more may be coming.

State Rep. Matt Ramsey (R-Peachtree City) hopes to get a hearing next week on the first of two bills that, taken together, would make it unlawful to tamper with state tests or help others cheat on them. No law in Georgia currently makes it a crime to cheat. Ramsey's bills would find violators guilty of a misdemeanor, subject to the loss of their pensions and possibly fined.

"I think there is widespread agreement that there is a hole in the wall that needs to be filled," Ramsey said. "To many of us, it was a shock to see just how many schools were on the list."

Gov. Sonny Perdue endorsed Ramsey's bills. Another of his major education initiatives this year would tie teachers' pay to students' performance on assessments including state tests. The proposal drew additional scrutiny during a hearing Thursday by the Senate's Education and Youth Committee. No vote was taken, but Sims sits on that committee: "If we are going to shift to merit pay, how do we make sure we secure our funds to make sure we don't encounter these kinds of improprieties?"

That question will likely pop up elsewhere. Chairman Brooks Coleman (R-Duluth) said he plans to ask Mathers to appear before the House Education Committee as early as next week  to discuss her office's findings and possible ramifications.

The revelations, he said, show the importance of developing a proper evaluation system as part of the governor’s plan to link teacher pay to performance. Such a plan is “going to put a lot of pressure on teachers,” Coleman said.

The state's analysis, done by its testing contractor, examined answer sheets for tests taken by students in the first through eighth grades. It flagged those with high numbers of wrong answers that were erased and changed to right answers for tests on reading, English and math. Tests in each subject area were counted separately. The analysis highlighted classrooms where the number of changed answers per student diverged greatly from the state average.

Staff writers Nancy Badertscher and Laura Diamond contributed to this article.