| May 3, 2012

Are Oklahoma School Districts Cheating?

It was “the year of the test cheating scandal,” the Associated Press reported as 2011 drew to a close.

Has that scandal come to Oklahoma?

According to a March 25 report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (“Cheating our children: Suspicious school test scores across the nation”), “suspicious test scores in roughly 200 school districts resemble those that entangled Atlanta in the biggest cheating scandal in American history, an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.”

The newspaper analyzed test results for 69,000 public schools and found high concentrations of suspect math or reading scores in school systems from coast to coast. The findings represent an unprecedented examination of the integrity of school testing.
The analysis doesn’t prove cheating. But it reveals that test scores in hundreds of cities followed a pattern that, in Atlanta, indicated cheating in multiple schools.

Says U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: “These findings are concerning.”

According to the report—which has also attracted the attention of NPR (“Evidence Builds of Schools Cheating to Boost Students’ Test Scores”) and The Atlantic (“Investigation Finds Suspicious Achievement in Schools Across the Nation”)—”196 of the nation’s 3,125 largest school districts had enough suspect tests that the odds of the results occurring by chance alone were worse than one in 1,000.” These districts, in the AJC’s analysis, “appear to most resemble the pattern of test score jumps and drops found in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal.”

The Oklahoma districts on this list are Choctaw/Nicoma Park, Owasso, Stillwater, and Tulsa.

In addition, the AJC listed 10 Oklahoma districts which “do not match the Atlanta pattern as closely” but which “certainly deserve further examination.” These are: Bartlesville, Broken Arrow, Edmond, Muskogee, Mustang, Norman, Oklahoma City, Sand Springs, Western Heights, and Yukon.

“Some school leaders accused of cheating have attributed steep gains to exemplary teaching,” the AJC notes. “But experts said instruction isn’t likely to move scores to the degree seen in the AJC’s analysis.” Through teaching alone, said James Wollack, a University of Wisconsin-Madison expert in testing and cheating who reviewed the AJC’s work, “it’s going to be pretty tough to have that sort of an impact.”

“I can say with some confidence,” he said, “cheating is something you should be looking at.”

The AJC continues: “Statistical checks for extreme changes in scores are like medical tests, said Gary Phillips, a vice president and chief scientist for the large nonprofit American Institutes for Research, who advised the AJC on its methodology. ‘This is a broad screening,’ he said. ‘If you find something, you’re supposed to go to the doctor and follow up with a more detailed diagnostic process.’”

Many agree. Both U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten have called for an investigation. Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, correctly points out that “it would be unfair to pass premature judgment on any of these school systems.” But he said the AJC story “will undoubtedly trigger a thorough review—as it should.”

Tulsa superintendent Keith Ballard disagrees. Undisturbed by one-in-a-thousand odds, Ballard doesn’t think any diagnostic follow-up is necessary. “I am pleased with the growth that our students have shown,” he says, “and don’t see any validity in the story.”

“If the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s findings are valid,” says Oklahoma state Superintendent Janet Barresi, “they certainly merit further inquiry, but we must also be cautious about painting with too broad a brush. We will be looking closely at these findings, and consulting with state policy-makers and Oklahoma school administrators.”

Parents and taxpayers will be interested to see what she discovers.

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