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Cheating on DC-CAS Costs Charter School

My colleague Bill Turque has uncovered this information from the D.C. schools beat:

The teacher at Howard Road Academy Public Charter School suspected something was seriously amiss in April when a student taking the math portion of the DC-CAS standardized test announced that she was finished -- way early.

"You can't be finished. Go back and check your work," the teacher said.

"We did this yesterday. I know all of the answers," the student said.

The scene comes from a report by school officials detailing the investigation of a cheating scandal at their G Street campus in Southeast D.C. When the probe was done, an administrator and two teachers were dismissed and 27 fourth- and sixth-graders had their test scores invalidated.

Word of the cheating quietly surfaced on the Assessment and Accountability page of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education Web site in the form of a June 18 letter from Acting State Superintendent of Education Kerri L. Briggs. She said the agency would cut $10,000 of the school's Title I funding to cover the cost of replacing the exam tainted by what she called "this breach in security."

The students will be counted as performing Below Basic in the computation of the school's Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The letter, from which all names and other identifying details were redacted, mentioned the school's report, which The Post asked to see.

The thick narrative was also peppered with black marker. Yet it still pried open an interesting little window onto security challenges with the high-stakes DC-CAS.

When the teacher looked at the student's exam, she found that the problems were identical to those in a packet of practice questions distributed to students a few days earlier. A colleague had a similar experience, and they shared their concern with the school's leadership.

According to a statement from an unnamed school official, copies of the test were "distributed strategically to two new teachers who have never administered a DC-CAS before and didn't know what they looked like. The pages were copied without covers and distributed to them as extra practice for the kids."

Security was also lax, according to another staff member's statement. Copies of the exams were sitting in an unlocked cabinet for three weeks prior to testing week.
The administrator who leaked the test, and two teachers who knew of the cheating but did not report it, were dismissed, according to the report.

The report also strongly suggests that school politics may have helped create an envionment in which cheating could take root. It includes a letter of "reprimand" and another of "admonishment" to two unnamed Howard Road employees from Mosaica Education Inc., the company that operates Howard Road and charter schools in eight states.

One of them, who was apparently in a senior position, was cited for a failure of leadership because the teachers who suspected the cheating "did not feel comfortable" coming to him/her. "Had they not seen you as so personally close to [name redacted] they would have brought this issue directly to your attention."

The letter concluded: "Finally, you failed dramatically in your judgement about the personal integrity and professionalism of your key deputy at G Street, despite suspicions and evidence to the contrary, and put him in a position of trust as [job title redacted], thus opening up the possibility for this incident to have occurred."

When The Post called Howard asking for Nicole Richardson, listed on the DC Public Charter School Board Web site as principal of the G St. campus, the person on the other end hung up. Another Howard official who said he'd been on the job only for a month referred us to Mosaica offices in Atlanta. A phone call there was not returned.

--Bill Turque

By Washington Post editors  | August 12, 2009; 4:08 PM ET
Categories:  dc schools  
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"When the teacher looked at the student's exam, she found that the problems were identical to those in a packet of practice questions distributed to students a few days earlier. A colleague had a similar experience ..."

Were those practice packages only distributed to that school? Were similar packages distributed to other schools?

There is no simple answer to the question that should have been asked before heading down this test prep path, but is it ethical to be practicing tests up to the last few days before testing? If this is widespread, and if a relatively few of the practice questions are similar to the test questions that follow soon after, that would have an effect that is far greater than any possible gains resulting from "teacher quality" or improved instruction.

Posted by: johnt4853 | August 13, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

I am flabbergasted that this story is seen as "news." Where have you journalists been?

In almost every school across the country there is virtually no security around these tests. They are usually delivered to schools a week or so before they are administered. Principals urge their teachers to "familiarize yourself" with the tests. Many teachers are then free to check them out and keep them in their classrooms for a day or more before the administration. It is extremely easy for the teacher to look at test items and then teach these items to the students before giving the test. Most teachers are smart enough to do this verbally, so there is nothing in writing. Also, most principals are savvy enough to make it sound as though they want their teachers to familiarize themselves with the format of the test and not the test items. As long as nothing is in writing, it is very difficult to prove anything.

Bill, would you like to improve education in DC and the rest of the country without spending a penny? See what you can do to make sure that these high-stakes tests are given under the strictist security. A district that cannot afford to secure these tests, cannot afford to administer them. By the way, teachers know that this is going on and that's one of the reasons they don't want to be evaluated on the basis of test results.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | August 14, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

Why not just overnight the test booklets so that they arrive the morning of the test?

Spending a few hundred bucks in courier fees would go a long way toward providing good security, without any burden on the local schools to provide that security.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | August 14, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

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