By Marisol Bello and Greg Toppo, USA TODAY
Fewer than half the states routinely analyze suspicious numbers of erasures on standardized school tests, a key method of detecting cheating by teachers or their bosses.
Erasure analysis launched a Georgia investigation that uncovered widespread cheating in Atlanta schools and has triggered probes in Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
A survey by USA TODAY of state education agencies found that 20 states and Washington, D.C., did erasure analysis on all pencil-and-paper tests required during the 2010-11 school year under the federal No Child Left Behind education law.
That means nearly 45% of the annual reading and math exams this year were scored without analyzing erasures.
The analysis looks for unusual rates of answers erased and changed from wrong to right. Statisticians consider it a key indicator of whether educators are correcting students’ answers in order to boost their schools’ scores.
Erasure analysis called ‘common sense’
“It’s a very powerful tool to assist states in identifying patterns and determining if something is amiss,” says Ron Tomalis, Pennsylvania’s secretary of Education. His department is investigating 89 schools flagged for high erasures in 2009. The department is also analyzing erasure reports for 2010 and 2011. “It is a signal to people in the field that the manipulation of test data will not be tolerated.”
Teachers’ and administrators’ salaries, bonuses and jobs are increasingly tied to test scores. Schools can be penalized if their students’ scores don’t show consistent improvement.
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.
“It’s common sense,” says Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, an education professor at Arizona State University who has researched cheating by teachers on standardized tests. “The more consequences you attach to the test, the more likely people are to do something artificial to inflate them.”
In the wake of recent cheating scandals, five more states — Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Mexico and North Carolina— say they plan to conduct erasure analysis this school year. New York officials are deciding this week.
The extra step will cost New Mexico about $70,000 on top of the $2 million it spends annually on testing, says Hanna Skandera, the state’s public education secretary.
“We thought that was a small price to pay when you’re looking to capture an accurate portrayal of what’s happening in our classrooms,” Skandera says.
Some states that don’t do erasure analysis say they don’t have a cheating problem. Others say the cost is a burden. Four states that do not examine erasures give their tests online.
“There’s no reason to believe we have a considerable issue with cheating,” says David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education. “When there is a problem, we know about it. It’s pretty rare.”
Kathleen Mathers, executive director of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, says, “How do you know if you have a cheating problem if you don’t do an across-the-board test?”
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says schools’ contracts with testing companies should require statistical study that can detect cheating. “Valid, reliable data are absolutely essential to meaningful accountability and implementing education reform,” he says.
A USA TODAY investigation in March in Washington, D.C., found 103 public schools — more than half — had unusually high rates of wrong answers changed to right ones from 2008 through 2010.
Contributing: Carly Mallenbaum