Educators who cheat to improve their schools’ test scores should be subject to financial penalties, the state’s top education official said Wednesday as the state began an investigation of alleged cheating at a Waterbury school.

State Education Commissioner George Coleman said he plans to propose toughening the state’s anti-cheating laws by making teachers or principals liable for costs related to investigating irregularities, retesting students or hiring substitutes to replace suspended teachers.

Coleman’s remarks came as Waterbury officials suspended 15 teachers and two administrators at Hopeville School, where a sudden spike in this year’s scores on the statewide Connecticut Mastery Test raised suspicion.

Coleman said he is incensed by the apparent breach of ethics. “When people taint not only their own professionalism, but the profession as a whole, it makes me angry,” he said.

The State Department of Education has hired the Hartford law firm of Siegel, O’Connor, O’Donnell & Beck to investigate. “We intend to get to the bottom of this as early as possible,” said Coleman, who estimated the investigation could cost as much as $20,000.

The apparent irregularities came to light last month when Waterbury officials questioned Hopeville School’s stunning rise in scores on the Mastery Test, the annual test that is the state’s chief benchmark of educational progress. The test is given to children in grades three through eight.

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. The tests included “many erasures that would seem to be atypical,” she said. “The majority of time, the erasures resulted in incorrect answers being changed to correct.”

Overall, the school reported that 94 percent of students met the state’s math goal and 93 percent met the reading goal, compared with 68 percent in math and 53 percent in reading a year ago, according to Battistoni.

Under state law, educators found to violate testing rules or cheat on tests are subject to having their teaching licenses revoked, but instances of cheating have been rare.

In 1995, the Bridgeport Board of Education fired an eighth-grade reading teacher for tampering with students’ answer sheets on the Mastery Test. New Haven school officials suspended a teacher in 1993 for giving students answers on a portion of the test, and Hamden schools suspended two teachers in 1990 for telling fourth-graders the topic of an essay question on the test the day before it was given.

In one of the most well-publicized cheating incidents in the state, the Fairfield Board of Education in 1997 suspended Roger Previs, a popular elementary school principal who was accused of tampering with students’ answers on state and national tests. Previs chose to retire but insisted he was innocent.

Across the nation, educators have expressed concern about cheating as schools rely increasingly on high-stakes tests to measure progress. In Georgia, a recent state investigation reported 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.

In Waterbury, officials have recommended re-testing the Hopeville students.

Battistoni said the rules against coaching students or changing student answers are clear. “I would never think in a million years someone would disregard that,” she said.

In a letter to parents last week, Waterbury Superintendent of Schools David L. Snead said the district will cooperate fully with state investigators “so that we may open Hopeville School in the fall with integrity. It is quite possible there may be some necessary personnel changes pending results of the investigation.”

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