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By Chastity Pratt Dawsey, Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki and Kristi Tanner-White of the Detroit Free Press

Second-grade teacher Eileen Seawood supervises a writing assignment at George Washington Carver Academy last week. (Photo by By Andre J. Jackson, Detroit Free Press)

HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. — The teachers and principal at George Washington Carver Academy, a charter school here, have learned firsthand what happens when an official probe concludes that the staff cheated on a standardized test.

Monitors sent by the Michigan Department of Education have watched over teachers here for the past two years as state tests have been administered. As a group, teachers have been forced to review, line by line, all of the state’s testing rules.

During the two weeks of the 2009 tests, a state monitor collected student test booklets and answer sheets daily and locked them in another building, to prevent any tampering.

Celestine Sanders, the principal hired at Carver a year after cheating was discovered on the 2008 state math and English tests, said she was dismayed when she saw a report detailing how the school cheated. “I think they were afraid for their jobs,” she said, referring to the teachers’ actions.

Educators at Carver cheated on the tests in many ways, stopping just short of giving students the answers, the state investigation found. Plastic-wrapped exams were opened days before the state allowed, so students could be coached. Teachers gave students hints during the exams in classrooms where interior windows were covered with paper to keep anyone from looking inside. And when students asked questions, teachers showed them how to get the right answer, the state said.

The state opened the investigation after someone at the school reported the cheating. Fourth- and fifth-grade students interviewed by the Michigan Department of Education innocently described how teachers helped them answer questions.

Suspicious test scores series

The Hechinger Report, USA TODAY and several other news outlets partnered to investigate the standardized test scores of millions of students in six states and the District of Columbia. The investigation identified 1,610 examples of statistically rare, perhaps suspect, gains on state tests.

When test scores are too good to be true
For teachers, many ways and reasons to cheat on tests

“We had the test booklet,” a fifth-grader told investigators about the writing test. The teacher “was teaching us how to do it. It was nice and clear.”

A fourth-grader called the test “pretty easy” because the teacher “gave us ideas for the topic sentence and the ending sentence. … She was trying to help us do our best.”

The state Education Department invalidated Carver’s 2008 fourth- and fifth-grade English and math scores. As a result, the school did not meet federal annual yearly progress, or AYP, performance standards.

Sanders, hired as principal at Carver in 2009, said all of the administrators and 11 of the 12 teachers interviewed during the state investigation are no longer at the school. It’s unclear whether they left because of the scandal or because of a new management company at the charter school.

Monitors sent by the state during exam time have been helpful, Sanders said. “It does make a difference when people are watching. It’s made us closer. The state told me we’ve made lemons out of lemonade.”

This story originally appeared in USA TODAY on March 10, 2011.

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