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NCLB Outrages

Leaders aim to curb cheating on tests

Ohanian Comment: For all of you who think Kennedy offers hope on NCLB revisions, look at what he says here: "strengthen existing provisions requiring valid and reliable assessments."

Changes are considered for No Child Left Behind due to suspicious scores such as those in Camden.

By Frank Kummer

Five years after high-stakes school testing swept the nation, some key lawmakers now say they want to make sure results remain credible.

They say they are reacting to past reports of cheating from around the country, including Boston, Texas and now Camden, where high-flying scores from 2005 were the result of "adult interference," state investigators found.

Other examples of suspicious scores and outright cheating have emerged nationally including teachers who gave answers to students and excluded from testing others who were low-performing.

House and Senate leaders on No Child Left Behind said cheating has emerged on the radar, with some calling for changes in the law to require states to monitor for it.

And academics are entering the fray with studies that they say show cheating has gotten out of control as teachers are pressured to improve scores, although some still dispute how widespread cheating is, or if anything needs to be done.

No Child Left Behind, President Bush's signature education law, comes up for renewal next year and hearings already are being held to shape the debate. Bush recently said he considers renewal a priority.

The law requires schools to improve scores each year or face ever-severe sanctions. Principals can lose jobs; the state can ultimately take over.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D., Mass.), who helped pass the law in 2001, said in an e-mail that "we need to take steps to prevent manipulation of results on the federal, state and local levels." Kennedy is ranking Democrat of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

"Accountability is meaningless if the tests used to measure progress are not valid," he wrote. "There is growing concern about this issue."

Kennedy said a new law also needs to "strengthen existing provisions requiring valid and reliable assessments."

However, he stopped short of providing specifics.

U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.), who sits on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, wants states to perform statistical audits to look for oddities in test scores to zero in on cheating, especially by adults.

"The present law takes an impassive approach. I think we need a more proactive approach," Andrews said.

Andrews watched as Camden became embroiled in a test-score scandal now under criminal investigation by the state attorney general. He calls the situation "unfortunate."

While New Jersey now promises to monitor for cheating, the state began investigating only after The Inquirer alerted officials to unusually high scores that put Camden elementary schools at the top of the state.

A state Department of Education investigation confirmed that the scores were unreasonably high, citing "adult interference."

There is a lot of time for tinkering with the final version of the bill, which isn't expected until late next year.

The cheating issue may come up during hearings, said the office of U.S. Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

"Obviously, reliable data is one of the cornerstones of the law. So we need to make sure these assessments are going to be done," said Steve Forde, a McKeon spokesman. However, Forde said there is no blueprint as to how reauthorization will look.

U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the House committee, agrees cheating is an issue since accountability is a core goal of the law, according to his spokesman, Tom Kiley. "It's one of the things that could and should be part of the mix in reauthorization," Kiley said.

Despite cheating scandals in Camden and other districts, lawmakers disagree on how big the cheating problem is and what should be done to prevent it.

Calling for some action are academics who say research paints a problem that is bigger than most want to admit.

David C. Berliner, a University of Arizona Regent's Professor, has pored over news databases from across the country to document what he sees as a growing pattern of cheating.

His soon-to-be-published book cites "hundreds" of examples of cheating, cheating allegations, or manipulation of security in standardized testing nationwide over the last decade, he said.

Berliner links it to No Child Left Behind: the pressure to perform in high-stakes testing turns good people bad.

"Any time an indicator takes on too much value," Berliner said, "it gets corrupted and so do the people who work with it."

But many No Child Left Behind supporters dispute that cheating is widespread.

Richard P. Phelps, who wrote Kill the Messenger: The War on Standardized Testing, argues that academics and journalists are biased against No Child Left Behind and exaggerate cheating.

While people have complained that the tests create a high-pressure atmosphere in schools, "we haven't seen evidence that supports widespread cheating," said Alex Nock, director of the Commission on No Child Left Behind. The commission is a "bipartisan, independent effort" to improve the law.

Critics say one of the problems is that few states monitor test results for possible cheating, and federal law doesn't require it. About half of the 30 states responding to a recent Inquirer survey said they did any sort of statistical analysis of scores.

Federal officials say they are hesitant to require expensive auditing since districts already complain about the cost of adhering to the law.

But Berliner argues that the punitive nature of No Child Left Behind compels otherwise honest people to game the system by excluding students from the test, giving teachers advanced copies of tests, and even giving students the answers.

He said that is primarily because the law requires that all students, including those who are poor, who speak little English, or who have learning disabilities, achieve proficiency in reading and math by 2014.

Failing districts such as Camden face such onerous penalties that it's almost inevitable they try to pump up scores, Berliner said.

The state Department of Education, and, subsequently the Attorney General's Office, began investigations after The Inquirer raised questions about how Camden could have schools scoring among the highest in the state.

Fourth-grade students at one school, H.B. Wilson, achieved the highest average math scores in the state in 2005. Another school, U.S. Wiggins, scored not far behind, and had among the highest science scores in the state. Scores plunged in 2006.

Meanwhile, Joseph Carruth, the principal of Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High, said he was pressured by an administrator to rig 11th-grade math results. Carruth, since let go by the district for unspecified reasons, said school officials are pressured to continually boost scores. The district hired a former prosecutor to investigate, but he has yet to issue a report. The board must also decide whether disciplinary action is necessary against any personnel.

Experts say suspected cheating is easy to spot, given the right tools.

In 2002, economists Brian A. Jacob and Steven D. Levitt applied an algorithm they developed to catch cheating to Chicago Public Schools. They matched individual student past performance to the disputed test after being brought in by Arne Duncan, the school system's chief executive officer.

Chicago launched an investigation of 20 schools based on the results.

"Since we issue high-stake tests whose results are very important for both students and schools," says Arne Duncan, the Chicago schools' chief executive officer who hired Levitt, in a written response to questions. "We thought it best to put in place measures to look for potential cheating because it is critical to retain the credibility of these tests."

Test Cheating Around the U.S.

In addition to Camden, cheating allegations have surfaced around the country. Here's a sampling:

Chicago, 2002: Two economics professors were brought in by the Chicago Public Schools to look for cheating. They found suspicious test results in 70 classrooms, suggesting a pattern of cheating that led to a district investigation. Teachers were accused of giving tips to students, erasing answers, and filling in blank answers.

Boston, 2004: Fourth-grade students told investigators a principal urged them to cheat on a high-stakes standardized test because performance had been low.

Texas, 2004: Dallas Morning News analysis found 400 of 7,700 Texas public schools reported scores with unusually high scores. The state hired a test security firm, Caveon, which this month flagged 699 scores at schools. A state task force is currently examining the scores.

Pennsylvania, 2005:A Chester Upland principal was fired after allegedly changing test responses. State education officials refused to say whether cheating took place, explaining that they could go to jail for commenting on the investigation.

SOURCES: Professors Sharon L. Nichols, University of Texas at San Antonio and David C. Berliner, Arizona State University in their paper: The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators Through High-Stakes Testing; Dallas Morning News; Freakonomics.

— Frank Kummer
Philadelphia Inquirer
2006-10-26


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