Suspicious test scores widespread in state

The Atlanta district is home to 58 of the 191 schools statewide that are likely to undergo investigations into potential cheating. Another 178 schools will probably see new test security mandates, such as stepped-up monitoring during testing.

The findings singled out 69 percent of Atlanta elementary and middle schools — far more than any other district — as needing formal probes into possible tampering.

Wednesday, Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall said the new findings do not prove scores were falsified. The district will investigate, she said.

“I’m concerned with the number of schools and convinced we should do a detailed analysis to get to the bottom of this,” said Hall.

After a more limited state testing probe that named an Atlanta school last year, Gov. Sonny Perdue said Hall ignored strong evidence of cheating.

The state Board of Education heard details Wednesday of the findings, which follow more than a year of stories by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about suspicious scores.

Perdue said the state’s education system must take steps to salvage the credibility of the state Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, the primary measure of achievement in grades one through eight.

“This has got to be impeccable beyond reproach,” Perdue said of the test. “The sad thing is that it really is the students that are being cheated.”

Statewide, more than half of elementary and middle schools had at least one classroom where erasure marks were so unusual that cheating may have occurred, the analysis shows. State and local officials will take follow-up steps in the 20 percent of schools with the most classrooms in question.

The extent of the suspicious answer changes is stunning, said Gregory Cizek, a University of North Carolina testing expert. He has studied cheating for more than a decade, but said he doesn’t know of another state that has detected so many potential problems.

“I’m sort of speechless,” he said. “You hear about it widespread within a school sometimes, but nothing like this.”

He praised state officials for taking action. “Kudos to Georgia for getting serious about this.”

Wrong-to-right changes

The findings came from a statewide analysis of erasure marks on student answer sheets that the state’s testing contractor conducted for free, state officials said.

The company looked for high numbers of wrong answers that were erased and changed to right answers on reading, English and math tests. The analysis highlighted classrooms where the number of changed answers per student diverged greatly from the state average.

At Atlanta’s Gideons Elementary, for instance, an average of 27 of 70 answers on each fourth-grader’s math test were changed from wrong to right in one classroom. At the city’s now-closed Blalock Elementary, an average of 26 of 70 answers on the fifth-grade math test were erased and corrected.

Some teachers give tests in more than one subject. Each subject test was counted separately.

Schools where suspicious erasures showed up in 5 percent or fewer classrooms were categorized as “clear” by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, which led the probe. Schools with 6 percent to 10 percent of classrooms in question were labeled of “minimal concern.” The achievement office is recommending monitoring or the rotating of teachers during testing for such schools.

The next two categories of schools are likely to see the strongest actions, including local investigations into answer-changing with results submitted to the state.

Schools of “moderate concern” had 11 percent to 24 percent of classrooms exhibiting suspicious erasures. In schools of “severe concern,” 25 percent or more of classrooms showed highly unlikely percentages of wrong-to-right changes.

The achievement office said the chances of a classroom being flagged erroneously were less than one in 1,000. But state Superintendent Kathy Cox cautioned the public to wait for results of additional investigations before forming an opinion.

Ben Scafidi, director of the nonprofit Center for an Educated Georgia in Norcross, said the findings are likely to upset parents.

“I’m a parent, I’m mortified,” said Scafidi, who has two children in public schools. “I think parents are very concerned about how their children do on the CRCT, and now they don’t know how their children are doing.”

The top five most suspicious schools statewide were in Atlanta. Gideons Elementary, Peyton Forest Elementary, F.L. Stanton Elementary and Usher/Collier Heights Elementary all had more than 78 percent of classes under suspicion.

In the district’s Parks Middle School, nearly 90 percent of classrooms had highly unusual erasures.

Calls to all five schools were not returned Wednesday.

Perdue and Atlanta’s Hall had a public spat last summer when she said the state’s investigation into retest shenanigans didn’t prove cheating. Perdue called her response outrageous.

On Wednesday, Hall said the district can’t risk tarnishing the reputations of innocent school staff by jumping to conclusions.

“We are going to look very deep at all the classes involved and all the data,” she said. “Where there are other corroborating factors that seem to indicate something else took place we are going to pursue it very, very directly.”

If cheating is found, she added, the district will take immediate action.

A dozen Atlanta schools came under scrutiny after an October AJC story reported extraordinary gains or drops in scores between last year and the year before. Following a 2008 AJC story questioning some schools’ gains on CRCT retests, the state investigated and sanctioned educators in four schools in four districts — including one Atlanta school — last year.

Perdue said districts will not be permitted to ignore the state’s latest findings. “We will not allow this to be whitewashed,” he said.

Cizek, however, said allowing districts to investigate themselves is akin to airport security allowing passengers to pat themselves down. He said an independent agency should conduct the inquiries.

Perdue said that, before the public release, he phoned Hall and the superintendent of Dougherty County in Albany, which had the second highest number of schools — 14 — in the moderate or severe categories.

Cheating to survive?

Dougherty schools spokesman R.D. Harter said the district is seeking more information and hopes to bring in outside experts to investigate the allegations.

Students who pass the CRCT only because of falsified scores miss extra tutoring available to those who fail. Perdue said systems that were flagged as suspicious will be expected to offer such services to children who should have received them.

The validity of the CRCT is crucial for one of the governor’s major initiatives this year: a plan to tie teachers’ pay to student performance, partly based on test scores. Such an approach is also being pushed by the U.S. Department of Education.

Perdue said he informed U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan of the findings of the cheating investigation. He said Duncan was “excited” that the state was taking an aggressive approach to test score validity.

But the focus on test scores has its detractors. Former teacher Donna Williams of Macon wrote in an e-mail that while cheating isn’t justifiable, the No Child Left Behind Act may have created an environment where schools think they must cheat to survive.

“We are doing students and, indeed, ourselves a great disservice with the unrelenting use of scores,” she wrote.

In addition to whatever measures the state board approves regarding individual schools, the state will be taking steps to increase the security of all tests, Perdue said. He declined to give specifics.

Student achievement office Executive Director Kathleen Mathers said the state hopes to do a similar analysis next year. It might also look at other tests besides the CRCT.

“Given the resources, we’d like to do this on a year-to-year basis,” she said.

-- Staff writer Kristina Torres contributed to this article.

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