Cheating Investigation Casts Shadow on Testing

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Exactly how secure is testing in D.C. public schools from tampering? The continuing controversy over this all-important process – determining not just the future academic paths of students but also of federal education funding – is an ongoing, muddled affair.

On May 18, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) released the results of an investigation involving 10 schools for which problematic situations had been identified. The investigation included reviewing data abnormalities in 18 classrooms across both District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and Public Charter Schools. In three DCPS classrooms, OSSE invalidated test scores because the investigation found evidence or a strong suspicion of a test security violation.

“The findings confirm our belief in and support for the overwhelming number of students, teachers, and staff that work hard and play by the rules,” State Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley said.

OSSE released a summary of 31 reported irregularities – 14 of which required further action by the state education office. The 14 range in significance from a teacher standing too close to a student during the test to more serious concerns that may require OSSE to take additional action.

Moreover, there’s roiling disagreement on all sides of the testing story. The problematic occurrences reviewed by OSSE revealed a pattern of disregard for discipline and procedure on the part of students and staff.

For instance, the report used a grid showing a specific list of incidents, which included a proctor using a laptop to send an e-mail during testing and cell phone texting during testing. It also indicated a number of instances in which teachers and proctors interacted inappropriately with students during test periods.

In one testing classroom, OSSE reported there was enough to bring about invalidation. In other cases, students as well as test-givers were found to have followed lax standards.

Apart from the political and professional reputations on the line, especially that of Michelle Rhee, this issue is a stand-in for the debate about school testing in general.

“This is a very pro-test period in American education,” said Washington Teacher Union President Nathan Saunders. “As a result of teacher performance and school closures being directly related to tests, unfortunately some educators have used alternative schemes, including cheating to meet the mandates.”

Some critics disdain the tests themselves and the commercial motives of the companies supplying them. The Washington Post Co.’s Kaplan division has attracted scrutiny. Kaplan Inc.’s testing and “university” is the Post’s primary revenue generator, yet in reporting about the testing dust-up, Post reporters have apparently not bothered to note this, which some observers consider a possible conflict of interest.

“In all fairness, the Washington Post should disclose every time that it writes an article about testing that it owns the largest testing firms in this country and receives significant benefits from it,” Saunders said.

Former DC Board of Education member Iris Toyer said national parent organizations must become more visible in the testing debate. “When you put all of your eggs in the testing basket, this is what happens. It’s almost inevitable,” said Toyer, former chair of Parents United. “This testing madness is about keeping jobs, closing school buildings and not educating our children.”

Saunders agreed. “Not only in DC, but across the country, teachers feel pressured to teach to the tests.”

The whole concept behind the tests, as mandated by the No Child Left Behind initiative that was a cornerstone of educational policy in former President George W. Bush’s administration, has attracted criticism.

Ironically, even one of the testing firms, McGraw-Hill, has publicly cited limitations of the one-test-fits-all approach when it comes to inner-city populations, such as the District.

McGraw-Hill’s David Miller Sadker, Ph.D., and Karen R. Zittleman, Ph.D. noted on Education.com website, “Since students do not receive equal educations, holding identical expectations for all students places the poorer ones at a disadvantage…African Americans and Hispanics, females, poor students and those with disabilities are disproportionately failing ‘high-stakes’ standardized tests.”

It appears that pressure to deliver academic results that may actually, at the time of testing, be out of institutional reach could potentially lead to misconduct. “It is important for school systems to shy away from methods that encourage this type of behavior and let’s get back to the business of educating students,” said WTU’s Saunders.

DeRutter Jones, researcher, contributed to this article.