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From the archives: Allegations of test improprieties cropping up across country

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook launched in 1994 as a newspaper committed to ensuring quality and equity in Philadelphia public schools. We celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first publication earlier this year. We are featuring an article from our archives each week, shedding light on both the dramatic changes that have taken place in public education and the persistent issues facing Philadelphia’s school system.

This piece is from the Spring 2003 print edition:

by Ajuah Helton

• In Rhode Island, teachers in some schools kept copies of previous years’ exams and used them to prepare students for the 1999 state assessment.

• In New York City, a teacher was fired in 1999 after allegedly "sneaking a peek" at the state English test, discovering that the essay question concerned Cubist art, and giving her fourth-grade students a lecture on Cubism the day before the test. The teacher was one of nine employees reprimanded.

• In Michigan, a 2001 statewide investigation of 71 schools with matching answers and irregular test erasures uncovered a seventh-grade teacher’s allegations that his school’s principal changed test answers on the state exam. He said an assistant principal ordered teachers to take erasers off students’ pencils so that a "magic eraser" could be used to make corrections for them.

In state after state conducting "high-stakes" testing, allegations of cheating have been on the rise. Mike Boulus, Michigan’s deputy treasurer, reported that Michigan investigated nearly 500 incidents of possible test irregularities in 2001, a tenfold increase over the number investigated in earlier years.

"The incidence of cheating on standardized tests in Pennsylvania is very small," said Shanna McClintock, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

But problems may go unreported. One study in North Carolina found that 35 percent of teachers surveyed were aware of "inappropriate test administration practices."

Critics of standardized tests see a direct relationship between the high stakes and the pressure to cheat.

"When you put a huge amount of weight on one indicator — test performance — you provide an incentive for cheating," says Walter Haney, senior research associate at Boston College’s Center for the Study of Testing.

As stakes continue to rise not only for students, but also for teachers, administrators, and districts, the issue of cheating becomes more than just a student problem.

States across America have instituted test-based accountability programs in growing numbers, extending the impact of test results to school and district funding, teacher bonuses, and administrator promotions. In Virginia, low test scores will soon threaten schools with a loss of accreditation. In New York, principal pay and tenure are linked to standardized test results.

Under President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, schools face sanctions if they can’t meet specified annual gains on state tests.

And Pennsylvania is no exception to the high-stakes climate. Schools that improve their students’ performance on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) can receive performance incentive awards of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Last spring, the decision about which Philadelphia schools to privatize was based solely on standardized test scores.

Many ways to cheat

Districts, schools, and teachers can violate the rules of the test in ways both subtle and severe.

Violations of test security: Although there are extensive protocols outlined for the administration of standardized tests, test validity can still be compromised through inadequate test security. Tests received from the state are usually stored at school sites prior to test days.

Also, due to the cost of changing exam versions, many schools and districts administer the same test version from year to year, so it is possible for educators to record and then teach test items.

"Many items must remain the same from one year to the next for the purposes of equating," said McClintock about the PSSA exam.

Test booklets are not always inventoried before and after testing, and if they are, school staff often do the counting by hand. The alternative, test booklet barcoding for electronic counting, could cost districts over $20,000 per test version, according to the Harcourt Brace Educational Measurement publishing company.

Tampering with answers: In the majority of America’s public schools, teachers administer the mandated high-stakes tests to their own students in their own classrooms. School site staff also collect and submit all testing materials and answer sheets to district or state offices for tabulation.

As Jerry Jesness, a teacher in Texas, comments in a article, "In no other arena are those who stand to benefit or suffer according to test results in charge of testing. Law schools do not give bar exams, nor do driving schools give drivers’ license exams."

Few districts have the funding required to hire outside test proctors, or rotate school staffs to different school sites to create a traditional testing environment. Such measures could cost over $1 per pupil per test per year, according to Stephen P. Klein, a senior research scientist with the RAND research group.

Exclusionary practices: Yet another means by which school and district scores can be altered is by excluding low-performing students and/or their scores.

In Texas, the percentage of special education students exempted from the state assessment test jumped from 37.5 percent in 1998 to 50 percent in 1999, the year their scores began to count toward schools’ ratings, a University of Texas at Austin study reported.

Test scores of students in special education have more recently become a concern for schools because the No Child Left Behind legislation requires all but the most severely disabled students to be tested.

Monty Neill, Director of FairTest, a Massachusetts-based group advocating against the misuse of standardized tests, states, "While there are provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act to ensure that all children are tested and that special needs students are included, we have heard of more and more incidents of students being driven out of school, or encouraged to drop out, to improve test scores.

"Researchers in Texas and Massachusetts also have documented an increase in grade retention in an effort to boost test scores," Neill continues. Students retained in a grade are tested at the same level, and in some cases they repeat the very same test, improving their chances of scoring well.

In addition to excluding or discouraging students from testing, desperation to produce positive results can result in school staff failing to submit some students’ test forms.

A blow to test score validity

Cheating on standardized tests undermines their stated purpose — to provide information about how much students have learned or how they compare to one another.

"When cheating occurs, testing yields inaccurate information about individual students and group test performance," writes Gregory J. Cizek of the University of North Carolina, author of Cheating on Tests: How to Do It, Detect It, and Prevent It. "The error is compounded when this information is then used for any educational purpose."

However, some contend that quality education, not test score validity, is the most critical casualty of high-stakes standardized testing.

Monty Neill asserts, "While we [at FairTest] don’t condone cheating, we think the bigger problem is policy-makers who institute unreasonable high-stakes tests that cheat students out of a good education by placing too much focus on scores. These policies harm far more children than incidents of teachers helping students on tests ever could."

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