“Suspicious” Test Scores Found in Four RI School Districts

Monday, March 26, 2012


Between 2008 and 2011, the Coventry, East Providence, Providence and Woonsocket school districts had questionable test scores similar to districts around the country that have been caught in cheating scandals, according to a nationwide investigation conducted by the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The newspaper found “suspicious test scores” in math or reading in nearly 200 school districts across the country. While the investigation’s methodology pointed out that the results do not necessarily confirm that cheating occurred in any school district, it suggests that some test scores “deserve further examination.”

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The test scores in question followed similar patterns to those found in Atlanta, which the newspaper says was home to the “biggest cheating scandal in American history.” In that city, teachers and administrators were caught erasing incorrect answers on standardized tests in an effort to help to turn around the failing school district.

4 RI School Districts “Flagged”

The investigation “flagged” all school districts showing unusual test scores in any of the four years examined. According to the newspaper, “in any year, a typical (non-cheating) district might expect to have about 5% of its classes flagged for unusually high or low performance relative to their performances in the previous year. Districts which consistently have 10% or more of their classes flagged or which have an extremely high flag rate in a particular year certainly deserve further examination.”

*A class represents a group of students in the same school from one year to the next. All of Rhode Island's results can be viewed here.

Coventry: In 2009, 14.29 percent of classes were flagged for unusual test scores. A year later, 10 percent of its classes were flagged. In 2008 and 2011, less than four percent were flagged.

East Providence: In 2008 and 2009, at least 10 percent of classes were flagged. In 2008, the number was exactly 10 percent and in 2009, 12.5 percent of classes showed suspicious test scores.

Providence: The state’s largest school district showed high flagging rates in 2008 and again last year. In 2008, 13.27 classes were flagged. In 2011, 11.21 percent of classes were flagged. In 2010, the number wasn’t quite as high, but 8.04 percent of classes showed questionable test scores.

Woonsocket: While the cash-strapped city only showed one year of irregular scores, Woonsocket had the highest flag rate of all. In 2008, 29.17 percent of classes were flagged. That number is more than double any other district in Rhode Island and higher than Atlanta’s flag rate in any of the years examined.

Major Cases of Cheating

As standardized testing had begun to play a more prominent role in schools across the county thanks to the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act and continued by the Obama administration, accusations of test tampering have become more prevalent.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution highlighted some of the most well-known incidents:

  • In Atlanta, cheating was found to have taken place in almost two-thirds of elementary and middle schools as educators were paid bonuses for raising test scores.
  • In Baltimore, 16 schools were implicating in a cheating scandal and three educators in elementary schools were found to have changed answers on standardized tests.
  • In Detroit, the state found suspect erasures on some standardized tests in 2009.
  • In Houston, several principals and teachers were fired after a cheating investigation.

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Teacher Certification Linked to Achievement

Critics of standardized testing have pointed to cheating scandals, particularly those which have occurred in charter schools, as examples of why popular education reform initiatives such as merit pay or linking teacher evaluations with student achievement can be harmful. They say the pressure to produce immediate results can drive educators to cheating.

In Rhode Island, all educators will receive annual evaluations that come with four ratings: highly effective, effective, developing, or ineffective. An evaluation of “developing” or better is considered evidence of successful practice.

Educators who receive evaluations of “ineffective” for five years in a row will lose their certification while educators who demonstrate “successful practice” through positive ratings on their annual evaluations will be eligible for renewal of their certification, according to regulations passed by the Board of Regents last year.

At the time, Education Commissioner Deborah Gist suggested the new standards were a step in the right direction.

“By linking the certification of our educators to student achievement and to other evidence of effective performance, the Regents have taken a major step in our efforts to ensure that we have excellent teachers in every classroom and excellent leaders in every school,” Gist said. “In addition, this new, streamlined certification system removes a bureaucratic burden that took up far too much of our educators’ time. The new system will allow our educators to focus on improving teaching and learning.”

No to High Stakes Testing

Rhode Island has also taken steps to ensure that the outcomes on standardized tests play a role in whether a student can graduate from high school. Beginning in 2014, students who do not pass a statewide standardized test would be ineligible to receive a diploma.

Critics say the rule is unfair to students who do not test well and places an immense amount of stress on teachers whose will likely be blamed if graduation rates suddenly plummet.

Those concerns have prompted State Rep. Eileen S. Naughton (D-Dist. 21, Warwick) and Sen. Harold M. Metts (D-Dist. 6, Providence) to introduce a bill that would not require a test be used to determine a student’s eligibility to graduate from high school.

“We don’t want educators to ‘teach to the test,’” Naughton said. “We want them to use the test as a tool for achievement. We can’t let students fall behind by putting too much emphasis on the formal assessments. We need to aim for highly qualified teachers, smaller classrooms and well-rounded education for students. This is going to put us on the right path to success.”

Metts said there needs to be multiple pathways when it comes to helping students graduate.

“I’ve never been a proponent of using high stakes testing as the sole criteria for graduation,” he said. “There needs to be multiple pathways. This is about equal opportunity for all students and producing an educated workforce that is so vital to our economic recovery.”

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