How to get off probation without really trying

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“Whodunit?” trumpets the cover of the October issue of Teacher magazine. “Somebody cheated on standardized tests at a top Connecticut school. And it wasn’t the students.”

The article by Drew Lindsay not only shows how a testing scandal tore a town apart, but also reports on the increasing use of multiple-choice, standardized tests for make-or-break decisionsand the concomitant pressure to cheat.

Now that Chicago has hopped on the bandwagon, concern about cheating is growing here, too, even among school officials. The following are various ways schools could boost scores without teaching kids more, existing safeguards against cheating and what the administration plans to do in the future.

TAMPER WITH SCORE SHEETS As happened in Fairfield, Conn., someone can erase wrong answers and fill in correct answers. In Fairfield, though, a “crime lab, a retired judge, a nationally known testing expert, and a firm of private investigators headed by an ex-FBI agent” had yet to finger a culprit, according to Teacher magazine, leaving the possibility that it was simply a bunch of smart kids that made a lot of errors and caught their own mistakes.

In Chicago, schools must submit a plan for how they will keep tests and answer sheets secure and ensure that all are returned to central office. Officials also are looking into technology that analyzes erasures.

FUDGE TEST PROCEDURES Teachers can give students hints about answers or give them more than the prescribed amount of time. To discourage this practice, Chicago forbids teachers in 4th grade and up from administering standardized tests to their own students. Also, teachers who administer tests receive flyers spelling out the proper procedures.

Further, the testing office routinely retests a sample of classes each year to help keep schools honest and check out accusations of cheating. Last year, 117 7th-grade and 25 8th-grade classes were retested, with only a handful experiencing significant losses the second time around, according to Testing Director Carole Perlman. Asked whether there was evidence of cheating at these schools, she said only that “there some some things we wanted to pursue.” When large discrepancies arise, principals are called in for a conference, she says.

TEACH THE TEST School systems typically reuse tests from time to time to aid in comparing scores from one year to the next. For example, Chicago used a different form of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency every year from 1990 to 1994 but recycled old tests in both 1995 and 1966, according to Perlman.

Schools are forbidden from keeping or making copies of tests.

Perlman notes that creation of an investigations office has made it possible to check out suspicions and allegations.

DON’T TEST LOW ACHIEVERS Schools can boost their averages by discouraging low achievers from showing up on testing days or by failing to make an all-out effort to get everyone to show up. “Now that the stakes are a lot higher,” says Perlman, “it’s really not fair if one school tests 99.5 percent of its students while a school right down the street encourages kids to stay home.”

Perlman notes that there are several legitimate reasons to exclude students: Children who have been in bilingual education for three years or less are not tested, and the scores of most special education students are not included in a school’s average.

As currently programmed, the board’s computers cannot easily pinpoint the reason a student was not tested or the reason a score was not figured into a school’s average. But that’s going to change, says Research Director John Easton. “It is a very high priority of this department to calculate and report the percentage of students tested,” he says.

The state reports the percentage of students taking state IGAP tests but relies on schools for correct data.

PUT MORE STUDENTS IN SPECIAL ED The scores of most special education students are not figured into school averages. In the early 1980s, one Chicago subdistrict with impressive test scores was found to have referred a suspiciously large number of students for special education evaluation.

The board’s Office of Specialized Services monitors special ed placements. “Routinely, we pay attention to any school that has an increase in referrals,” says Yvonne Williams, special education officer. “Twelve percent of children in the Chicago public schools have learning disabilities. If we see schools with referrals over 12 percent, it’s a red flag to take a closer look.”

RETAIN MORE STUDENTS When students are retained, they generally post higher test scores the second year in the same grade level; at the same time, they’re not dragging down the scores of classmates who were promoted. Chicago’s new promotion policy, which likely will lead to more retentions, gives scores a push in and of itself.

Short of cheating, the easiest way for a school to get off probation is to focus on students who score just below average rather than on the lowest achieving students, whose scores are much harder to raise. To get off probation, a school must raise the percentage of students scoring at or above national norms in reading.

Had the school system stayed with last year’s measure, schools would have been forced to focus on lower achieving children. Last year, the trigger for intervention was the percentage of students failing to meet state standards on the state IGAP tests, which include math, science, writing and social studies as well as reading.

Phillip Hansen, the board’s intervention director, says that probation teams will monitor school plans to ensure that all children are being helped, not just those near the cutoff score.