Suspicious Test Scores

In Georgia, test-answer erasures triggered criminal probe

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By Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello, USA TODAY

Kathleen Mathers oversees investigations of cheating in Georgia schools. (Photo by By Ben Gray, Atlanta Journal Constitution)

The same kind of high erasure rates that have been reported on standardized tests in Washington, D.C., schools also spurred intensive investigations by state and federal authorities in Georgia during the past two years.

The tactics used in Georgia are sharply different, however, from those employed in Washington: Georgia is conducting a criminal investigation that could lead to prosecutions.

Fifty agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, an agency like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, began in October 2010 to question teachers and principals at 58 Atlanta schools where there were statistically significant rates of wrong answers changed to right ones on students’ answer sheets. The agents are conducting one-on-one private interviews with educators. It is a felony in Georgia to lie to a law enforcement officer.

In Washington, questioning has been done by Caveon, a Utah company whose specialty is data analysis. D.C. officials and occasionally principals have sat in on interviews with individual teachers, Caveon executive John Fremer told USA TODAY, and educators were not asked explicitly whether they cheated.

Former governor Sonny Perdue, a Republican whose term ended in January, ordered law enforcement to take over the Georgia investigation because he said he was dissatisfied with the failure of districts in Atlanta and elsewhere to explain the erasures. He denounced an earlier inquiry done by a 15-member commission in Atlanta, with Caveon’s assistance, as “woefully inadequate both in scope and depth.” It had focused on only 12 schools, and in many places investigators had interviewed only a small percentage of the faculty.

Kathleen Mathers, the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, said any Georgia school where 5% or more of classrooms had high rates of wrong-to-right erasures was of “concern” to investigators; those schools where 25% of classrooms had high erasure rates were of “severe concern” and were considered priorities.

“We’re not saying that cheating happened at every one of those schools,” said Mathers, whose office oversees the investigations. “But how in the world did all of those flags appear in one building? It’s the pervasiveness of it. That just doesn’t happen in nature.”

Only 4% of Georgia’s schools were considered of “severe concern” after the 2009 tests, Mathers said. In contrast, more than 15% of D.C.’s public schools had so many classrooms flagged in 2008 that they would have raised “severe concern,” but none was investigated that year.

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.

READ THE WHOLE SERIES

In deciding where to investigate in 2009, D.C. school officials considered other factors besides erasure rates, including gains or losses in student scores. Mathers said Georgia concentrated on erasure rates because her office had little confidence that the baseline test scores were legitimate.

“If there’s misconduct” by educators administering the test, the risk is that “it’s been happening for some time,” she said. And, she added, “everyone can understand erasing an answer and penciling in a new response,” so erasure rates were easily explained.

TheAtlanta Journal-Constitution was a major force behind the Georgia inquiries. Using open-records laws, the newspaper published dozens of stories in 2008 and 2009 about unusual score increases in many Georgia schools.

In one early case uncovered by the Journal-Constitution, a principal and a vice principal in a DeKalb County elementary school resigned after admitting that they had worked together to erase answers on student tests. The principal pleaded guilty to a felony charge of falsifying a state document and was banned from schools for two years.

The U.S. Justice Department last fall began investigating whether Atlanta schools may have committed fraud, the Journal-Constitution reported. A grand jury was examining whether Atlanta schools had qualified for additional federal money by inflating scores.

This story originally appeared in USA TODAY on March 27, 2011.

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