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40 States Probed Alleged Cheating on Tests, Federal Report Finds

A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office has found that most states have looked into allegations of cheating by school officials on state tests in the past two years.

The study, released this week, found that 33 states confirmed at least one such case of cheating, and 32 reported invalidating test scores as a result of cheating.

The report was prompted by several high-profile cases of cheating on tests, such as the recent one in Atlanta. The federal government has an interest in the security and validity of state tests results because it helps fund the development of tests used for federal accountability. The GAO report says the U.S. Department of Education has funneled $2 billion toward such projects since 2002.

With that in mind, and also a 2009 report of its own that found lax security procedures in some places on state tests, the GAO sought to find out what states are doing about test security. Using the best practices outlined in a 2010 report by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Association of Test Publishers (which EdWeek wrote about here), the GAO designed a Web-based survey asking states which of those practices they use in their state assessment programs. All 50 states and the District of Columbia responded. The GAO also conducted interviews and site visits with education officials in two states and interviewed officials from test publishers and a test-security company.

Most of the report focuses on how widely the "best practices" in assessment are being used in the states. But the extent of cheating allegations that it found is noteworthy in light of cheating scandals in Atlanta and elsewhere.

The study also notes the incentives to cheat that could flow from linking tests to honors or recognition (or, as the study did not point out, punitive responses). In 24 states, test results are linked to teacher evaluations and/or special rewards or recognitions for schools that improve test scores, the study says. In nine states, results are linked to educators' promotions, it says.

And it reports widespread jitters about cheating. All 50 states reported feeling vulnerable to cheating during their tests, and 47 reported feeling vulnerable after the test is given. Forty-three percent reported similar fears somewhere along the chain of custody of testing materials, and 40 said they feared cheating in the period leading up to the test. Forty-five states said they were concerned about cheating when using accommodations for students with special needs.

The study includes no recommendations. It notes that test security can be improved if states put strong policies and procedures in place and that the move to computer-based testing could "address some vulnerabilities of paper-based assessments." But it could also create new vulnerabilities, the GAO study says.

"Additional guidance and oversight will be key to ensuring that appropriate policies and procedures are adopted by schools to address these new vulnerabilities," the report says.

Here are the six areas of "best practice" in test security and a summary of what the GAO survey found:

•Test-security plans: 40 states reported having all seven or more of the nine leading practices in this area, including procedures for keeping materials secure.

•Security training: 32 states had 10 or more of the 11 leading practices in training personnel for tests.

•Security breaches: 42 states had five or more of the six leading practices to prevent or deal with breaches in test security.

•Test administration: 21 states had 29 to 31 of the 32 leading practices in this area, and another 24 had 24 to 28 of them. The numbers are far lower after that: Two had 18 to 20 of those practices, and four had only six to 10.

•Protecting secure materials: Seven states reported having all 16 of the best practices in this area, which includes practices such as accounting for test materials at all stages of distribution. Twenty-three states reported having 13 to 15 of those practices. Twenty-one states reported 12 or fewer.

•Leading practices in computer-based tests: The GAO reported on this separately, since only 28 states administer computer-based tests. The CCSSO/ATP—identified 14 best practices for computer-based testing, including clearly documenting and explaining the use of software and supporting devices. The GAO found that eight of the 28 states that give their tests this way use all 14 best practices. Another seven reported using 13 of the 14.

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