TRENTON 2011-34 N.J. schools to be investigated for possible cheating after state discovers test score irregularitiesThe Department of Education has ordered an investigation of 34 schools for possible cheating after an analysis of standardized test scores revealed irregularities.
After examining two years of data, state investigators identified schools with unusually high rates of erasures, or instances where answers were changed from wrong to right. The state identified nine schools with high schoolwide averages and 25 district and charter schools with high levels of erasures in one or more grades, a state report shows.
In three Newark elementary schools, the average number of answers that were changed from wrong to right was four to five times higher than the state average of 2.43 erasures per test. A middle school in Franklin Lakes and an elementary school in Woodbridge had wrong-to-right erasure rates that were twice as high as the state average, according to the report.
Districts flagged for investigation were quick to defend their students’ performance on the tests.
Franklin Lakes Superintendent Frank Romano said his district in Bergen County strictly adheres to test protocol, and said he was "absolutely not" concerned there was cheating at Franklin Avenue Middle School.
"Our students are very high performing, and if anyone is checking the students, it’s the students checking their own work," he said.
Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf notified districts of the investigation Tuesday. The state’s Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance will examine testing practices in nine district schools and three charter schools, while 15 districts with irregularities in at least one grade will conduct their own reviews.As a growing number of states, including New Jersey, push to link tenure and pay raises to student test scores, teachers are under mounting pressure to raise academic achievement. In Atlanta and Washington, D.C., teachers have been accused of doctoring test scores to reach those goals.
Cerf, however, stressed that there’s no indication cheating occurred in New Jersey.
"In no way do these reports prove that cheating occurred, nor do they implicate any school or teacher in wrongdoing," Cerf wrote in a letter to all districts and charter schools yesterday.
Statewide last year, Cerf said, 58.5 percent of all erasures were to change answers from wrong to right, compared to 56.9 percent in 2009. The percentage of answers going from wrong to right was highest in the state’s wealthiest districts and declined in poorer districts.
A statewide test score analysis identified 120 schools with high wrong to right erasure marks in at least one grade level. Thirty-four of those schools had rates so much greater than the state average that they warranted additional inquiry.
"High instances of erasure marks, where wrong answers are changed to right answers, happen for many reasons, including students checking their work or students making mistakes in tracking their test with the answer folder," Cerf wrote.
This is the third year the state has requested erasure analysis by Measurement Incorporated, its state assessment contractor. The Asbury Park Press filed suit to compel the Department of Education to release the names of schools flagged for high erasure rates.
Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the non-profit Center for Fair and Open Testing, said the nine schools flagged for high schoolwide erasure rates represent "highly unusual" statistical patterns that could indicate cheating.
"These kinds of score changes are as unusual as getting hit by lighting, then again, people do get hit by lighting," Schaeffer said. "If it’s not cheating, the schools should bottle their teaching techniques and sell them across the country that type of success is so rare."
Newark had six schools flagged by the state, the highest number of any district. Abington Avenue School had the highest rate of wrong to right erasures, and a Star-Ledger analysis of 2010 test scores shows students there doubled the test scores of their peers in the district.
In math, 96 percent of Abington sixth graders passed the state test compared to the district average of 47 percent and 93 percent of eighth graders passed vs. a 42 percent district average, the analysis found. In lanuage arts, 71 percent of Abington fourth graders passed compared to the district average of 35 percent, and 70 percent of sixth graders passed compared to a 34 percent districtwide average, according to the analysis.
Woodbridge Superintendent John Crowe said his district follows strict testing protocols, and was confident the results did not mean there was cheating. The Avenel Street School in Avenel was cited for an average 5.53 erasures.
"We do have strict protocols in place, and we follow those. At all times the state can always come in and monitor," he said.
Crowe said he would not be surprised if students are reviewing their work and making erasures. "That is good test-taking strategy. One of the strategies we teach is you get through the test, and go back and check your answers," he said.
At the Robert Treat Academy, a Newark charter school, the sixth grade was singled out after the state found an average of 7.5 wrong-to-right erasures per test in 2010.
Sixth-graders there had stellar test results that year: State data showed every sixth-grade test taker at Robert Treat Academy passed both the language arts and math proficiency exams in 2010, the only grade at the school to get a perfect score, and one of only two sixth grade classes in the state to do so.
Robert Treat Principal Theresa Adubato released a prepared statement Tuesday:
"As the DOE indicated, the erasure analysis does not indicate any irregularities occurred at Robert Treat Academy. We welcome the DOE’s review of our sixth-grade tests. I’m confident that the DOE will find no irregularities occurred," she said.