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MCAS Cheating Inquiry Launched

WORCESTER -- For the first time since the debut of the MCAS exam five years ago, the state Department of Education is investigating possible schoolwide cheating at an elementary school whose test scores skyrocketed in 2003 after years of mediocre performance.

The department's inquiry into whether teachers or students at the Chandler Elementary Community School cheated on this spring's exam is the largest of the "less than 10" probes into cheating on the tough test, state officials said yesterday.

The others have been completed -- and students' scores invalidated in some cases -- but the probe of the Chandler's sudden academic turnaround has lasted about a month. It came at the request of School Superintendent James A. Caradonio, who was puzzled by the top-notch scores from a school in his district flagged for low performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Neither state education officials nor Worcester public school executives would divulge details of the review of Chandler, a school for grades K to 6. Located on a busy street in the shadow of downtown buildings, the Chandler has almost 88 percent of its students qualifying for discounted lunch, a common measure of a school population's poverty. About a quarter of its roughly 300 students speak limited English, and the school's scores typically have trailed state averages.

Yet on the 2003 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test, the school posted improvements that rivaled wealthy suburban districts. After two years in which no sixth-graders scored in the top-ranked or advanced level on the math test, 40 percent at the Chandler reached that level this year. That beats Worcester's total of 10 percent and the state average of 16 percent.

Two years ago, about 60 percent of fourth-graders failed the math MCAS test, scoring in the warning category, but this year, just 2 percent did. (Worcester's average went from 28 percent to 21 percent in those two years, and the state dropped from 19 percent to 16 percent.)

"It was brought to our attention that the Chandler Elementary School's MCAS results were significantly higher than they have been in previous years," said Heidi B. Perlman, a Department of Education spokeswoman. "That raised some suspicions that there might have been some wrongdoing in the administration of the test."

The investigation is expected to wrap up by the time schools break for Christmas, Perlman said. Officials said the possibility that teachers coached students or that they violated the test's strict guidelines for administering the exam, are under review.

"If there are violations of protocol or if anything is substantiated, I would expect the superintendent to take swift and decisive action," said Mayor Timothy P. Murray, who also chairs the Worcester School Committee. "We don't want to give any appearance of condoning this type of activity, but . . . the investigation is pending, and it needs to follow its course."

Passing the 10th-grade English and math sections of the MCAS test is a graduation requirement beginning with the class of 2003. There are no such stakes attached to the elementary grades' tests. But under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools must boost their test scores at steady rates every year or face sanctions that include replacing teachers.

The Chandler was among 194 Massachusetts public schools labeled "in need of improvement" under the federal law last year. But Worcester school officials yesterday say they do not know if the pressure of that label prompted the alleged cheating, and they said they wanted the matter concluded quickly to avoid tarnishing the 26,000-student school system as a whole.

"All the achievement the school district has made -- we didn't want to put that under any shadow," Deputy Superintendent Stephen E. Mills said.

Lynn Gagne has a daughter in first grade at the Chandler, but Gagne said she already has heard repeated conversations about how many points students need to do well in school. Gagne was unsure whether those points concerned the MCAS test, but she said the pressure was noticeable. "I think there's too much pressure on the kids," Gagne said. "Kids need to learn at their own pace." The school's principal during the 2003 test has been recovering from a stroke, and other officials at the school could not be reached for comment yesterday.

For the 2003 test statewide, DOE officials looked into about 80 suspicious happenings, Perlman said. Fewer than 10 involved cheating, and students then re-took the test.

— Anand Vaishnav
MCAS Cheating Inquiry Launched
Boston Globe


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