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8-24-12 Education & Related Issues in the News

Star Ledger - Education officials investigate security breaches surrounding NJ ASK exam

Published: Friday, August 24, 2012, 7:30 AM

By Jeanette Rundquist/The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger

In Wanaque, an eighth-grade teacher gave her students scratch paper during standardized testing this spring, then later learned the pages had old algebra problems and equations printed on the back.

In Millstone Township, a veteran teacher was accused by students of trying to point them to correct answers on the NJ ASK exam.

And in Waterford Township, Camden County, a sixth-grade teacher said she suffered such "curiosity and anxiety" about upcoming tests that she peeked into the sealed test booklet — rolling it like a telescope to look inside — and told colleagues what she saw. Her fellow teachers turned her in.

The state Department of Education is investigating alleged testing security breaches in 27 school districts, ranging from teachers accused of coaching students on how to write an essay, to those who wrongly handed out calculators or dictionaries, according to documents obtained from the state. The cases stem from this spring’s NJ ASK tests, given to students in grades 3-8, and the High School Proficiency Assessment and Alternative High School Assessment.

In addition, Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said last week 15 schools will be investigated as a result of "erasure analysis" of 2011 tests, where a higher-than-normal number of answers were changed from wrong to right.

In a memo to school superintendents about the erasures, Cerf said testing irregularities do not prove cheating occurred, but the "quality and integrity of data is of utmost importance."

"Unfortunately, cheating incidents across the country have reminded us that even though the vast majority of our teachers and administrators are honest, hardworking professionals, a small handful of unethical people sometimes do unethical things," he wrote.

Emphasis on standardized tests has been increasing. With scores being used to identify troubled schools and plans in place to use test scores in teacher evaluations, experts say concern over possible cheating and security has also increased.

"I think every school official and every teacher is feeling there’s an urgency behind the security of each assessment," said Michael Salvatore, school superintendent in Long Branch, where a breach occurred when dictionaries were given to eight special education students. The teacher involved had misinterpreted directions and had no intent to cheat, Salvatore said.

Waterford Superintendent Newlin Schoener said pressure over the tests may lead teachers to "do things that normally they would not do."

A tenured teacher in his district was suspended after she allegedly peered into the sealed NJ ASK booklet. Over lunch with colleagues, she mentioned the type of questions she saw.

While Schoener said he still considers the teacher innocent until proven guilty, state documents show she was suspended and could face the loss of her license. In addition, her 26 students had to be re-tested.

The teacher, who declined to comment for this story, told investigators in a written statement she looked at the test because "my curiosity and anxiety about the test got the better of me," but never discussed the questions with her students. She also wrote "I am truly sorry."

"This is so high stakes at this point that people are willing to throw their integrity out and do things that normally they would not do," said Schoener, adding that the state is "starting to zero in on little things.

"Everybody is so high strung for testing, they’re looking to be sure they are on target," he said. "I like to think we are extremely honest, and most of my colleagues are, but sometimes there are going to be people who try different things."

The state each year gives standardized tests to about 850,000 students in roughly 600 school districts.

Officials at the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, say 27 alleged breaches are a tiny number in comparison.

"I’m thinking 27 teachers out of hundreds of thousands of students who take the test every year is a very small number," said Rosemary Knab, associate director of NJEA Research & Economic Services. "It can’t be ignored, it should be addressed absolutely, but that needs to be kept in context."


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In a separate investigation, the state last year referred 21 schools to its Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance for investigation following erasure analysis, because they had higher than average erasure marks on the 2010 NJ ASK. The first reports from OFAC on the schools flagged in the erasure analysis will be out soon, Cerf said in his memo.

All teachers proctoring tests sign a "Statewide Assessments Test Security Agreement," promising not to copy or record any of the test materials, and not to coach students, among other things.

School administrators who learn of possible breaches must notify Department of Education’s county offices. The district then looks into the incident and submits a corrective action plan, while a county specialist also investigates. If the breach warrants further investigation, it is referred to OFAC.

Documents obtained from the Department of Education paint a picture of teacher anxiety over the tests. Some wrote hand-written apologies, while other expressed shock that they had been accused.

"I gasped as I immediately realized my mistake," one teacher told investigators.

"The agony that I went through from committing such as breach IS my corrective action plan," wrote one superintendent who caused an alleged breach by breaking open sealed booklets and hand-coding them. She said her school did not receive proper labels, and she was rushing to travel to visit a dying parent.

In Millstone, where a teacher was accused of trying to steer kids away from wrong answers by pointing or gesturing, the teacher said in a statement to investigators that she did not help students with answers. She also provided a doctor’s note saying she suffers from tremors, and "my head and hands shake involuntarily at all times."

In Wanaque, the teacher who used the wrong scrap paper told investigators she did not realize some of the sheets were old algebra worksheets. She also apologized to school district officials. Neither teacher could be reached for comment.

Bruce Baker, an assistant professor in the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, said he did not know whether states are focusing on test security more, but said he believes they are publicizing it more.

He said the problem is that test scores should not be used to measure quality of indivdiual schools or teachers — and "we’re putting undue pressure on certain schools to create numbers so they can keep their jobs."


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