Officials say online testing further reduces the ability to tamper with students' results
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 18, 2011
Revelations of widespread cheating by educators in Atlanta to boost test scores are raising questions about efforts to ensure the integrity of statewide tests and the pressures of high-stakes testing.
In Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., smudges left by erasers on paper-and-pencil tests and spikes in scores have helped trigger investigations into possible tampering with test results. Electronic scanners used to score the tests can detect erasures. Abnormally high rates of wrong answers changed to right ones are a statistical red flag.
This year the Hawaii State Assessment was conducted entirely online, an approach considered more secure than traditional paper exams, where students in a classroom take the same test and answers can be altered after tests are collected.
"It's a lot more difficult to cheat on an online test, especially an adaptive online test in which all the kids are looking at different items," said Jon Cohen, executive vice president of American Institutes for Research, which handles Hawaii's test. "This test is set up so that if a kid is away from a test for 20 minutes, nobody can go back and change their answers."
"This is not to say that it's impossible for someone to cheat on our test," he added, "but we're not at risk for the sort of cheating that you saw in Atlanta."
A 10-month investigation by the law enforcement arm of the Georgia governor's office culminated in a report released this month concluding that "thousands of school children were harmed by widespread cheating in the Atlanta Public School System." It described a "culture of fear and intimidation" amid intense pressure to meet test score targets. The report implicated 178 teachers and principals, 82 of whom confessed to cheating, including erasing and fixing answers after test completion or guiding students to the right answers.
The U.S. Education Department recently joined an investigation into allegations that such cheating might have also pushed up test scores in Washington, D.C., public schools. In Pennsylvania the state education secretary has ordered a review of all state exams since 2009 after statistical irregularities were found in Philadelphia.
In Hawaii, Cara Tanimura, director of the systems accountability office for Hawaii's public schools, said allegations of educator misconduct involving tests here have been rare. The cases came to light when other adults or students reported the activity.
"There have been very few instances where teachers try to influence the student to bubble in the correct answer," Tanimura said. "We tell them it is not worth your career."
"Now that we're online, that changes the landscape pretty dramatically," she added. "Online is much more secure."
Hawaii's computerized tests, she said, have built-in safeguards:
» Unlike paper tests, the online tests give different questions to students, adjusted by the computer.
» Once the test is submitted, no one can change the answers.
» Online test results are available immediately, not scored later.
» The computer system tracks when each student is logged in to take the test, how long they linger on each question and when and how they change their answers.
"The online system brings to light unusual or irregular scoring patterns for individual students, classes and grades, and we can look at that on a daily basis," Tani-mura said. "We can see when students change their answers. If we see patterns of that in a classroom or across grade levels, that's a red flag. We also know the general range of achievement. When there are tremendous spikes in the results, we go back and we check the data."
The exams are monitored both by the state and the testing company. In a few cases this year, testing occurred at unexpected times. "We've double-checked with schools and found there were legitimate reasons for testing at unusual times, such as when the computer lab was open," Tanimura said. "They were surprised that we knew."
Under federal law, annual statewide tests are used to judge the performance of each public school in the country. Failure to show progress can lead to sanctions, including replacing staff or restructuring the school.
"The Atlanta cheating scandal is the broadest, best-documented case that has yet come to light," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a Boston-based nonprofit that opposes high-stakes testing.
"This is a climate in which people thought their jobs and salaries were at stake," he said. "The greater the pressure in any profession, the more people crack."
Hawaii does not yet evaluate teachers based on their students' progress, but the state has pledged to do so as part of its successful application for Race to the Top federal funds.
Stephen Schatz, complex-area superintendent for Kaimuki, McKinley and Roosevelt, said teachers' effectiveness should be measured in part by the results they achieve with their students, but test scores should be kept in perspective.
"There's certainly a danger of overemphasizing one measure of achievement," Schatz said. "I think educators in Hawaii know how to keep things in perspective. They see test scores as one important indicator of success but not the only one."