District to review school testing safeguards

April 6, 2011

Officials of the District’s state education agency defended security procedures for the DC CAS standardized test Wednesday but said they will review safeguards in light of a USA Today investigation that found suspiciously high rates of answer-sheet erasures that could signal cheating.

In the first official public discussion of the March 28 report, representatives of State Superintendent of Education Hosanna Mahaley told the D.C. State Board of Education that the current protocols — which include monitoring of schools with past history of security violations, secure storage and transport of materials and a post-test analysis of answer sheets — are more than adequate.

“I can feel very confident that we are following best practices,” said Tamara Reavis, acting director of assessment and accountability for the Office of the State Superintendent Education (OSSE).

But Reavis and Jesse Bailey, a senior aide to Mahaley, said she has ordered a review of safeguards employed by other states.

The newspaper investigation found classrooms in 103 D.C. public schools over the last three years with high rates of erasures in which wrong answers were changed to right ones. A firm hired by the school system said it found no evidence of improprieties. But Acting Chancellor Kaya Henderson has referred the matter to D.C Inspector General Charles Willoughby for further review.

Board members expressed concern about some aspects of District test security. Board member Mark Jones said he had doubts about the security seal on each exam booklet, wondering whether it could be steamed open without detection. Reavis said she wasn’t sure.

During the nine-day testing period, schools keep exam books and answer sheets in a “secure location,” usually a locked closet or a vault in an administrator’s office. No more than two school officials — typically the principal and a designated test chairperson — are allowed to have access.

But Reavis said completed exams and answer sheets that are returned to the locked location are not sealed in shipment packets until all testing is completed. That left some members uncomfortable.

“We have to trust our principals that it is secure,” Reavis said.

Some wondered whether there was too much reliance on schools policing themselves. If OSSE suspects irregularities, its first option is to ask a school to conduct their own inquiry.

“It seems to me that the incentive to not dig too deeply could be great in some cases,” said board member Mary Lord.

In Georgia, officials are pursuing a criminal investigation into teacher-led cheating on standardized tests. But in interviews after the meeting, some board members said they were reluctant to press for such a probe. Board president Ted Trabue said he wanted to learn more about the scope of the inspector general’s inquiry.

“I’m torn,” said vice president Laura Slover, between the desire to move forward and to address possible past wrongdoing. But she added: “On the whole, I think the system works.”

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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