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Our Views: Wisconsin's education department must better ensure testing security

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August 20, 2013

Staffers might have done an exemplary job administering state tests last fall at Janesville's Franklin Middle School.

As Frank Schultz reported in the Aug. 11 Gazette, however, the Department of Public Instruction asked Franklin Principal Charlie Urness to review how tests were administered because an unusually high number of erasures led to correct answers.

Urness responded that staff members watched a test security presentation and that test booklets were collected and locked up between testing days. Urness also said teachers encouraged students to take the tests seriously.

District testing coordinator Amy Sheridan said some kids get stuck on one question in the timed test. So teachers stress that students should make best guesses, move on and return to the troublesome questions if they finish early. The eight Franklin seventh-graders whose erasures prompted the state's inquiry might have been following that advice. The district also noted that those students' scores didn't change significantly from previous tests. If cheating was involved, they might have.

The DPI was satisfied with the district's response and dug no further. Franklin was among 29 schools statewide that were flagged this spring for having abnormally high erasures. Department spokesman Patrick Gasper told Schultz that, other than to ask for a review of protocols, the state has never investigated a district based on erasures.

In other words, if a flagged district replies that it could find no evidence of cheating, that's good enough for the state. That's troublesome. Schultz interviewed two experts in the field who suggest more investigation is called for.

A company that analyzes erasures for DPI suggests the chance of so many wrong-to-right erasures is one in 10,000. Erasures that boosted test scores in Atlanta and in Washington, D.C., in recent years led to educators losing their jobs and criminal charges in Atlanta.

Kim Ehrhardt, the Janesville district's director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said teachers know they should not give students hints during testing. He pointed out that students have little reason to cheat because the tests don't affect their grades. And because teacher pay does not depend on test scores, the teachers have no direct incentive to alter test answers. However, pay for principals and other administrators does depend, in part, on test scores, Schultz reported.

“The fact that it was all at one school, to me, that sounds suspicious,” professor Timothy Shanahan of the University of Illinois at Chicago told Schultz. “I would at least want to look into it further.”

Brad Thiessen of St. Ambrose University investigated test cheating for his doctoral thesis. He said schools that teach students to quickly answer questions and return to troublesome ones do tend to have more erasures. He also said the high erasures could be coincidence and noted that people do win the lottery and get struck by lightning, despite extreme odds. Still, he, too, would like to see more investigation.

Since Schultz's report, The Gazette quizzed DPI's Gasper about what appears to be a blanket lack of follow-up investigation. He responded that his department takes testing integrity very seriously.

“It is important to remember that being above an erasure threshold does not automatically indicate foul play.”

Fair enough.

DPI, however, seems content to review rather than investigate statistical aberrations. Allowing districts to police themselves seems like a system that is ripe for abuse and could erode the credibility of statewide testing.

Starting in spring 2015, all tests will be administered online. The DPI is developing security measures for the computerized tests. One step might involve keystroke analysis.

Parents and all state residents should hope those measures and more leave less room for cheating.



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