Monday, May 11, 2015

Did Seven Schools in Arizona Cheat on High Stakes Tests? (And Is It Really Only Seven?)

Posted By on Mon, May 11, 2015 at 2:30 PM

Diane Douglas' Department of Education has asked the Attorney General to investigate suspicious erasures on AIMS tests from seven Arizona schools. There's a whole lot to unpack in this story, more than I want to write about in one post. I'll probably write more about it later in the week.

The ADE found that AIMS tests at the seven schools had an unusual number of wrong answers erased and correct answers bubbled in. Though it's always possible that the schools are full of unusually diligent students who looked over their tests, found mistakes and corrected them, it's extremely unlikely—wildly improbable, statistically—that's what happened. It's far more likely adults took the tests after they were handed in and changed wrong answers to right answers. Who those adults are—teachers, administrators, support staff or a combination—is an unanswered question at this point.

The seven schools are Edge, Children's Success Academy, Integrity Education Centre, James Sandoval/Crown Point High School, Metcalf Elementary School, Red Rock Elementary School and Wade Carpenter Middle School. They're a mixture of district and charter schools from around the state. The last on the list, Wade Carpenter Middle School in Nogales, has gotten a reasonable amount of press for the probable cheating. I wrote about it in March. The others are new to me.

But there's nothing new about the problem, and it's likely not limited to those seven schools. We've known for years that cheating on high stakes tests is going on around the country. A USA Today study done a few years ago found erase-and-replace patterns in lots of schools, and an AZ Republic study found instances here in Arizona. Most of them haven't been confirmed because, who wants to dig deep enough to find out if adults in some schools changed answers on high stakes tests? Not the schools, certainly. And not the state departments of education in most cases. Things like this are embarrassing and cause lots of bad publicity. Better to ignore the cheating entirely or take care of the problem behind closed doors.

That's what makes Douglas' decision to kick the problem up to the Attorney General's office important. Investigating this kind of cheating takes people trained in criminal investigations. The ADE staff doesn't have that kind of training. The AG staff does.

In fact, the one time a major cheating scandal was discovered, in Atlanta, Georgia, they brought in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into the allegations, and it took dogged, diligent sleuthing to get some of the adults who participated in the erase-and-replace scheme to break their silence and confess to what they, and others, did. If there was serious wrong-doing at the Arizona schools, it's unlikely it will be uncovered without a serious, time-consuming investigation.

The unanswered question is, what will AG Mark Brnovich do with the information handed to him? How deep will his investigation go? No telling at this point.

I hope it doesn't sound like I'm rubbing my hands together in glee about seeing schools and their staffs "brought to justice." The truth is, it breaks my heart. In Atlanta, people are going to jail over the cheating, and some of them are good people, good teachers. Yes, they're adults who should be held accountable for their actions, but if the stakes weren't so high in their schools, filled with children from low income families who tend to score low on the high stakes tests, they wouldn't have done what they did.

But at the same time as it troubles me that teachers, schools—and indirectly, students—will suffer if these cheating allegations are proven, I want people to understand how little faith they should put in the results of high stakes tests and how potentially destructive they can be to schools that cheat, and to schools that play by the rules and are told they're not getting the job done, because . . . Just look at those great test scores at Wade Carpenter Middle School in Nogales! Why can't you do that? For a slew of reasons, we need to end our obsession with yearly high stakes tests that began with Bush's No Child Left Behind program and has continued under the Obama administration.

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