A decade after a test-cheating scandal in Atlanta stained local education and spotlighted the need for strict testing procedures, a recent incident in Gwinnett County shows those safeguards can still easily be violated.
Nine educators at a Gwinnett County school — all of whom had undergone training on proper oversight of the state’s annual tests — are out of a job, after an investigation began when a teacher gave students study material they weren’t supposed to have.
When The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported the incident, many readers asked through e-mails, instant messaging and Facebook posts how and why such a thing could happen. An open-records request by The AJC garnered nearly 800 pages of documents revealing how some teachers and administrators failed to follow verbal and written instructions and jeopardized the integrity of the annual Milestones assessments.
Staff at Grace Snell Middle School were in the second week of testing. On Monday, April 29, the eighth-graders were scheduled to take the math portion of the assessment.
According to written statements from the teaching group that includes math teacher Carolyn McDuffie, students in that group had been given formula sheets the Friday before to use as study guides and add extensive notes, formulas and math content. The students were instructed to put their names on those sheets. McDuffie collected the papers and redistributed them Monday to students just before they were set to take the test.
Several students questioned said that their teachers allowed them to “brain dump” — transfer what they knew from their brains to paper or a computer hard drive — minutes before testing was to begin.
That morning, Assistant Principal Reginald Parrish noticed students had formula sheets with writing on them. He went to McDuffie’s class and asked for blank formula sheets. He made copies of those and substituted them for the papers with writing on them. According to state rules for the testing, the students weren’t supposed to have formula sheets at all, whether they were free of written notes or not.
Before her group of students began their tests, special education teacher Vanessa Case, who was also a test examiner, noticed several students had formula sheets “filled with writing.” She took them, telling students those weren’t allowed during the test. She then informed Christina McCann, school test coordinator, of the incident.
McCann went to all four homerooms and collected all of the formula sheets.
Students take Milestones exams online. Prior to testing, McCann said she had told all of the teachers that students wouldn’t be allowed to have anything except their test ticket, a sheet of paper with the student’s username and password for the test session. Students were allowed to use the test ticket as scratch paper. There was a separate test ticket for each section of the test.
McCann alerted Principal Allen Craine of the violation. Administrators at Gwinnett County schools’ main office as well as at the Georgia Department of Education were notified, and an investigation was started immediately.
Craine interviewed 12 eighth-grade teachers, but not the team mentioned in McCann’s complaint. He found the problem went beyond McDuffie’s class: Teachers on three of four eighth-grade teams had handed out blank formula sheets. Gwinnett had held training sessions for teachers, test coordinators and test administrators throughout the school year. And all teachers involved except for one completed ethics training and signed a form verifying that they had.
“Although there are still some components of the investigation that aren’t quite wrapped up, we realized that (the school district) did everything we were supposed to do,” said Jonathan Patterson, assistant superintendent for Curriculum and Instructional Support. “But when something like this happens you go back over your processes to see what else you can do or what you can do better.”
The preliminary investigation was concluded in about a week, and Gwinnett realized that 76 students would have to retake the test. All students were able to retest before school let out for the year.
“The swift action taken allowed us to avoid a lot of inconvenience for students and their families,” said Patterson.
If fewer than 95% of the school’s students took the test, its scores wouldn’t have counted for the year. Although they were able to get it done before school ended for the year, the retest did come with drawbacks:
- Students were only allowed to retest once. If a student failed, there was no option to retest again.
- The retest doesn’t include credit-recovery items, so it may be unfair to students on the borderline.
- The retest may not accurately reflect student knowledge because they have already seen the anchor items (a psychological assessment tool to measure an individual’s knowledge or cognitive ability by testing the same areas in different ways).
The educators who resigned or retired rather than see the investigation to its conclusion are under investigation by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. They may have violated professional ethics, and their certification may be suspended or revoked. In the meantime, they are still licensed to teach in the state.
“It might be a good idea to keep this school on the radar for the next year,” wrote Allison Timberlake, deputy superintendent for assessment and accountability for the state Department of Education, in a memo to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. The state office works to increase academic achievement and school completion across the state. The office maintains an education scoreboard that tracks the effectiveness of the state’s Pre-K through college programs, audits these programs to ensure that state funds are well used, and analyzes and shares with the public data about trends in education.
Timberlake and others were concerned that test examiners and personnel disregarded training and still passed out non-sanctioned material. Probably the biggest concern is that the formula sheets were copied at all. Reproducing any part of the test materials is a breach of test security and is on the list of test protocol given to every teacher.
“We will shine a light on this instance going forward,” said Patterson. “But we can’t anticipate every scenario.”
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