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California Strips Scores from 23 Schools in Cheating Probe

The news that 23 schools in California have had their Academic Performance Index (API) scores eliminated by a series of cheating incidents fits neatly into a pattern: For the past three years' worth of test results, the Los Angeles Times reported, including this year's, about two dozen schools in the state have seen their academic rankings tarnished by cheating.

What does that mean, in practical terms? Districts, not the state department of education, investigate any irregularities in testing results reported to the state. If they find that cheating (such as improper coaching of students) did take place, the students do not get an API score, which is comprised of the test scores but also other factors. This means the schools aren't eligible for various reward programs California provides for schools, such as the Distinguished Schools Program.

But API also factors into a school's ability to meet adequate yearly progress, or AYP, the measure of academic growth as defined in the No Child Left Behind Act. So not having an API score means that a school may not meet AYP for that year, and as you might expect, if a school doesn't meet AYP for two consecutive years, they go into Program Improvement.

(The state has applied for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, but its request is pending.)

As the Times reported, the cheating took a variety of forms. One example was a teacher telling students to write down helpful tables and other facts before a math test. One teacher even reportedly used facial expressions to signal to students when they received right and wrong answers.

On average, the state department receives reports about testing irregularities from roughly 100 schools each year, out of about 10,000 public schools in the state, said Tina Jung, a department spokeswoman. However, not all of those "flagged" schools actually had cheating take place, she said. Sometimes teachers accidentally left materials on the walls of their classrooms, for example, that helped students answer the test questions. Such a mistake can lead to corrective actions without any punishments involved for teachers and others.

For those who did improperly coach or otherwise help students cheat, there are a variety of consequences determined by the districts themselves. Some are placed on administrative leave, while others can be reassigned or dismissed. The department doesn't mandate consequences in these situations, so if it sounds like a lot is left up to the districts when the question of cheating or improper coaching comes up, you're right.

"Proving cheating is really, really difficult," Jung said.

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