Are Arizona Middle School Teachers Fudging Test Scores?

The Arizona Department of Education is throwing out 84 standardized math and reading assessments after an investigation at a Santa Cruz County middle school revealed irregularities in answer patterns.

But the state isn't accusing the kids of cheating. It's pointing at teachers.

An analysis of eraser marks on AIMS tests at Wade Carpenter Middle School showed wrong answers had been corrected three or more times on 23 percent of seventh grade reading evaluations. Eighteen percent of math tests had four or more corrections. By comparison, just .006 percent of children statewide successfully change wrong answers this frequently.

"These numbers are very concerning," said Charles Tack, deputy public information officer at the Arizona Department of Education. "We're talking orders of magnitude beyond what you would expect."

The investigation didn't examine the reasons for the aberrations. However, Tack said, "There was certainly mishandling of the test administration."

Nogales Unified School District has hired a third-party investigator to delve into the issue further, he told New Times.

Administrative cheating has been reported in 43 states and the District of Columbia since 2010, according to FairTest, a Massachusetts-based research and advocacy organization that monitors standardized testing. In Arizona, a 2010 Arizona State University study found more than 50 percent of educators admit to cheating on state tests.

Cheating is often as simple as shouting out correct answers, leaving multiplication tables on classroom walls, or setting up desks and chairs to facilitate copying, said Robert Schaeffer, director of public education at FairTest. In other cases, teachers have reclassified native English speakers as English Language Learners to give students additional time, destroyed answer sheets from low-scoring students, or filled in uncompleted tests.

In one particularly high-profile example, prosecutors in Atlanta this week delivered closing arguments against 12 educators facing racketeering charges for allegedly erasing and fixing students' wrong answers.

Nearly 200 school districts across the country, including three in Arizona, show jumps in test-score shifts similar to those found in the Atlanta cheating scandal, according to a data analysis conducted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. About 15 percent of classes at Isaac Elementary District and Littleton Elementary District recorded changes in test scores that fell outside the norm in 2011.

While the paper noted abnormal jumps in test scores "doesn't prove cheating," experts said the patterns are "troubling" and "merit further examination."

Incidents of administrative cheating have been on the rise since President George W. Bush introduced the "No Child Left Behind" initiative in 2001 and increased the number of standardized tests required to qualify for federal funding from six to 17, Schaeffer said. Under the program, schools must improve the percentage of students who reach proficiency in reading and math each year or face "restructuring", which could include firing and replacing teachers and administrators. President Barak Obama, in 2009, raised the stakes further with "Race to the Top," an initiative that awards money to states that improve test scores.

"Teachers feel that they have to boost test scores by hook or by crook," Schaeffer said. "In many jurisdictions it's become the sole measure of value."

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Elizabeth Stuart
Contact: Elizabeth Stuart