Despite high stakes, state relies on towns to police Mastery Test

Despite the high stakes attached to its multimillion-dollar statewide school testing program, new allegations of cheating show that Connecticut–like many other states–relies almost entirely on local districts to spot and report fraud.

An apparent cheating scandal at a Waterbury elementary school on the Connecticut Mastery Test came to light only after Waterbury officials alerted that state last month that something was amiss.

hopeville schools rep-am

Waterbury’s Hopeville School (Republican-American)

The State Department of Education does not routinely conduct the kind of analysis that would have spotted the suspicious spike in scores or the unusually high number of test booklet erasures that occurred at Hopeville School, said Barbara Beaudin, head of the department’s assessment division.

With 1,100 schools statewide, the department does not have the capacity to review every school and every grade, she said.

“We don’t do that here. We rely on our [local] districts to see if there is anything unusual” about the scores, she said. “We don’t have a program we run that would identify a certain number of erasures.”

Waterbury officials suspended 15 teachers and two administrators pending the outcome of the investigation of what appears to be the most serious ethical breach in the 26-year history of the Mastery Test. The test of reading, mathematics and writing is given annually to children in grades three through eight and is the state’s chief benchmark of educational progress.

The incident illustrates the extent to which the state depends on local school districts to review scores and preserve the integrity of the test–a $12 million-a-year enterprise–and raises questions about the pressure on schools and teachers to produce good results. Student scores on standardized tests can have far-reaching effects, from an educator’s career to an entire school district’s reputation.

Nevertheless, allowing local school districts to monitor themselves is a common practice in many states, said Audrey Beardsley, an Arizona State University professor who specializes in standardized testing.

“It’s almost a backward system because the state is the one that has no stake” in local results, she said. “It should be the one monitoring the test. Really, there are very minimum efforts in place to monitor this type of cheating.”

Connecticut is one of dozens of states where reports of cheating on school tests have surfaced, often after questions were raised by parties outside the education system.

  • In Georgia, an investigation by the governor’s office revealed widespread cheating in Atlanta’s public schools, saying that cheating was found among teachers and principals in nearly 80 percent of schools that were examined. It was issued two years after the Atlanta Journal Constitution first questioned the striking test score increases in the city.
  • In Pennsylvania, state officials started an investigation after The Notebook, a nonprofit Philadelphia-based community news service, unearthed a previously unreported state study showing that dozens of schools had unusually high numbers of erasures on state achievement tests.
  • In an extensive analysis of test results in six states and the District of Columbia, USA Today published a report earlier this year that found more than 1,600 examples of potentially suspicious spikes in scores on standardized state achievement tests.

“Certainly, in the last several years, the number of reported incidents has exploded,” said Bob Schaeffer, an official with FairTest, a national advocacy organization that has criticized what it calls the misuse of high-stakes standardized tests. The group has documented reports of cheating in 30 states, he said.

“The pressure is so great to improve test scores, the message is you have to get scores up by any means necessary,” he said.

Schaeffer said some state testing contracts include provisions for a basic statistical analysis to spot unusual test score fluctuations or excessive erasures. “More and more states are considering doing it because of the revelations” of cheating, he said.

Connecticut’s contract with Measurement Incorporated, a North Carolina testing firm, does not include such a provision, but Beaudin plans to meet with company officials “to see what options we have, given that this has raised the level of concern.

“We want to sort out what we could be doing, particularly in light of the high stakes for schools and districts and kids.”

Meanwhile, as a result of the Hopeville allegations, the state hired the Hartford law firm of Siegel, O’Connor, O’Donnell & Beck to conduct an independent investigation.

At Hopeville, the irregularities were so striking that officials immediately suspected wrongdoing on this year’s test and now are looking at the possibility that cheating may have occurred in earlier years, too, according to Beaudin.

Waterbury is an impoverished urban district that has struggled with low test scores over the years, but Hopeville posted scores this year that “were off the charts,” said Tara Battistoni, the school district’s testing coordinator.

All of the school’s fifth-graders, for example, met the rigorous state goal in both mathematics and reading, something that rarely occurs anywhere in the state and has never occurred in Waterbury, Battistoni said.

Until this year, officials had not noticed any evidence of suspicious scores, but when they took a closer look at earlier tests, they found that high-scoring students at Hopeville who had moved to other schools saw their scores plunge to the lowest level, Battistoni said.

Similarly, only eight of about 7,700 fifth-graders who took the Mastery Test in the state’s poorest school districts last spring made a one-year gain from the lowest level to the highest, according to Beaudin. Six of the eight came from Hopeville.

Beaudin also cited suspicions related to the high number of erasures. “In some cases, there were three erasures before the student got to the right answer,” she said.

Reports of cheating on the Mastery Test have been rare and confined mostly to isolated cases of individual teachers, but the state catalogs hundreds of examples of irregularities each year. Most of them are inadvertent errors, such as giving the wrong form of the test to special education students.

State rules prohibit copying of test materials, failing to return test materials, coaching students, giving students answers or altering students’ answers. “Violation of test security is a serious matter with far-reaching consequences,” warns a Mastery Test instruction manual.

Under state law, educators who violate testing rules or cheat on tests are subject to having their teaching licenses revoked. However, according to state education department legal officials, that penalty has been invoked only once, in the case of a Bridgeport reading teacher who was fired in 1995 after being accused of tampering with students’ answer sheets on the Mastery Test.

There are a handful of more recent examples of misconduct, according to a log of incidents at the State Department of Education. In Hartford, for example, the principal of Batchelder School spurred an investigation this year after allegedly requiring fourth-grade teachers to review test content bearing strong similarity to actual test questions. The matter remains under investigation. In Danbury, a teacher resigned last year after copying part of the test and giving it to another teacher. And an East Haddam teacher was disciplined in 2008 after making copies of math questions on the Mastery Test to review with students.

The extent of cheating is difficult to gauge, said Michael Morris, a University of New Haven psychology professor who specializes in studies of ethical behavior in areas such as welfare programs, employment and training programs, and education.

“These stories are coming from schools where people have been caught,” he said. “It’s hard to believe there have not been instances where people have not been caught.”

Under policies such as the federal No Child Left Behind Act, test results are used to categorize schools as needing improvement, single them out for intervention, or even replace their staff. As a result of prodding from the Obama administration, many states, including Connecticut, have begun developing policies linking teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests. Test results also can spur changes in curriculum and designate students for placement in or exit from special education programs or classes for non-English speakers, for example.

“The more high-stakes consequences attached to student performance on tests like the Connecticut Mastery Test, the greater the motivation to cheat,” Morris said.

In Waterbury, officials are planning to re-test the Hopeville students by giving them an alternate version of the test. Maintaining the integrity of the test is vital, Beaudin said. “This is the only measure we have statewide,” she said. “If security is compromised, we can’t make any valid statements about how students perform.”