CRCT failures rise at schools suspected of cheating

State test scores at metro schools suspected of the most widespread cheating last year dropped markedly this year, falling further in Atlanta than in other districts, preliminary data shows.

Steep declines in the number of Atlanta students who passed key subject tests threatened to reverse the upward climb that has helped bring longtime Superintendent Beverly Hall national acclaim.

At some elementary and middle schools, Atlanta students failed at two, three or four times the rate they did last year, an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found. Average scores on some tests plummeted dozens of points.

In math alone, nearly 2,100 more Atlanta students flunked this year than the year before. That amounted to a 28 percent spike in the number of failing students.

Schools have buzzed for days as results from this year’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests trickled into district offices, where leaders are wrapping up state-mandated investigations into allegations of cheating on the 2009 tests.

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During testing this spring, monitors walked the halls in schools the state labeled as at the greatest risk for impropriety. Parents and educators wondered whether jaw-dropping gains from years past would evaporate.

The state won’t release final school-by-school results for another month. The AJC used the state’s Open Records Act to obtain preliminary scores for nearly 500 schools in the six biggest metro districts.

The scores showed that overall, students at schools where state officials found cheating concerns were “severe” suffered average score drops of as much as 11 points, while students at schools considered “clear” made slight gains.

Passing rates mirrored the sagging scores. In severe schools, for instance, the percent of students failing math rose roughly 12 percentage points. In cleared schools, the percent of failing students declined by 1 percentage point this year.

School districts should view stark score drops at severe schools as potential evidence of tampering, said Kathleen Mathers, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.

“Generally, in schools where there proves to be a dramatic drop, we have concerns about what would cause that drop,” she said. “If it happens to be a school that had a high number of answers changed last year from wrong to right, that could be an indication that there had been intentional wrongdoing.”

The achievement office announced in February that an analysis of erasure marks showed hundreds of Georgia schools exhibited unusual numbers of wrong answers changed to right on the 2009 CRCTs, the state’s main academic measure for grades 1 through 8. The findings followed more than a year of stories in the AJC about statistically improbable score changes at some schools.

The state school board ordered investigations at 191 schools, 74 of which were labeled at “severe” risk of cheating. More schools were expected to tighten security measures.

The state trained about 90 monitors to police the severe schools and perform spot checks at others, Mathers said. It distributed special security tape to seal answer sheets before and after testing.

When peeled back, the tape left a residue with the warning “void and opened.”

The security tape was a simple, inexpensive way to prevent tampering after hours, Mathers said. State officials saw several envelopes that someone had apparently begun to peal open at the edges but stopped after seeing the result. She declined to say where that occurred.

At some schools, the scores are arriving to a more somber setting than in years past.

In Atlanta, employees in schools that meet 70 percent or more of the district’s goals for score increases win bonuses of up to $2,000 apiece. Last fall, 22 elementary and middle schools celebrated receiving a reward.

But this year, talk is of the district’s cheating investigation, led by a task force largely composed of civic and business leaders who say they have identified a dozen schools where employees are suspected of test-tampering. The group has not identified the schools or employees.

Overall, more than two-thirds of the district’s elementary and middle schools faced investigations after the state’s erasure analysis.

The newspaper’s analysis this week found that score drops in the 40 “severe” Atlanta schools drove up the district’s overall failure rate in reading, English and math.

For some schools, the year-to-year change was dramatic.

At Gideons Elementary, for instance, 92 percent of fifth-graders passed math in 2009. This year, just 39 percent did.

And at Dunbar Elementary, about 87 percent of fourth-graders passed math last year. But, this year, that number was 49 percent.

Hall, the superintendent, released a statement late last week in anticipation of the scores becoming public. She acknowledged some scores dropped but maintained the results overall demonstrated the district’s “continued academic progress.”

“On the 2010 CRCT, our young learners at the elementary level show inconsistent results in certain schools and subjects, such as math,” she said. The district is analyzing the results to find “the root cause or causes of the drop,” her statement said, and will provide extra help to students who need it this summer.

Other metro districts with schools labeled as severe cheating risks also saw drops in scores and pass rates for some subjects.

In DeKalb’s six severe schools, the failure rate rose roughly 14 percentage points overall in math, 5 percentage points in English and 7 percentage points in reading.

At Fulton’s three severe schools, the failure rate in math rose 5 percentage points and the reading failure rate climbed 4 percentage points.

Cobb had no severe schools. But two schools labeled “moderate” saw failure rates rise 6 percentage points in math and English, and 3 percentage points in reading.

Overall, failure rates were down in all three subjects in Cobb, Fulton and Clayton schools. Spokesmen for those districts said officials were still checking and analyzing the testing data.

DeKalb issued a statement Wednesday saying it had submitted a report on its investigations into the schools in question — which included interviews with 280 school employees — to the achievement office. The district is still following up on some of those interviews, the statement said, and will be “vigilant and forthright” in probing potential wrongdoing.

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Failure rates up for ‘severe’ schools

Here’s how schools the state labeled as “severe” cheating concerns fared in the six big metro districts when compared with all the district’s schools. The chart shows the change in the percent failing each subject last year vs. this year. Numbers are rounded and school averages were weighted according to the number of students.

Category

Number of schools

Reading

English

Math

All of metro

Severe

All

51

478

6

-1

5

0

12

0

Atlanta

Severe

All

40

77

7

2

6

3

14

6

Clayton

Severe

All

2

52

2

-3

0

-3

1

-3

Cobb

Severe:

All

None

97

None

-1

None

-1

None

-1

DeKalb

Severe

All

6

110

7

0

5

1

14

1

Fulton

Severe

All

3

78

4

-1

0

-1

5

-1

Gwinnett

Severe:

All

None

64

None

-1

None

0

None

0

How we got the story

To analyze CRCT scores, the AJC obtained preliminary student-level test score data, with student identification information deleted, from six metro school districts. We summarized the data by school and estimated failure rates using the passing score set by the state. School districts have not finished validating the results, and average scores and failure rates may change slightly in official results released later by the state. The data includes all public schools that took the CRCT in 2010, including charter schools.

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