Ohio third-graders are gearing up to take a reading test that could determine whether they are promoted or held back. In some states, high-stakes testing has driven educators to do the unthinkable: cheat. For Ohio Public Radio, WOSU's Mandie Trimble reports safeguards are in place in Ohio to lessen the chance of a standardized testing scandal.
High-stakes tests can be stressful for students. But they also can turn up the heat on teachers and administrators who have a lot riding on standardized tests: district report cards, school ratings, teacher evaluations, funding, even building closures.
While no Ohio district has been accused of cheating on standardized tests, Ohio Auditor Dave Yost found Columbus City Schools manipulated grade and attendance data to improve academic standing.
Some of the country’s largest districts went further.
Atlanta and Philadelphia Public Schools are mired in cheating scandals. Atlanta district employees changed test answers. Philadelphia remains under investigation for cheating.
Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Kimberly Graham said investigators discovered wrong test answers were erased and correct ones filled in. Some students were advised on which answers to mark.
“One teacher described to me a situation where students, who were kind of on the bubble, you know, close to being able to pass but not quite there, were given the test together in the library," Graham said. "And basically they sat at a table with a school administrator who coached them which answers they should fill in.”
But Ohio education officials say it has safeguards in place to prevent cheating on standardized tests. Jim Wright, who directs the department’s office of curriculum and assessment, said the state conducts erasure analyses on standardized tests to look for signs of cheating. He added test booklets are continuously accounted for.
“Who is to have access, a chain of custody, so to speak, of those materials and so forth. Who can have access to, rules around who can administer, all of those things are in place through an administrative code," Wright said.
Next year the state plans to move some standardized tests from traditional paper and pencil, to online exams, which could reduce opportunities to cheat.
“The online will change some of the issues," Wright said. "Because it’s no longer worrying about the chain of custody and the paper getting shipped and getting lost and so forth. But now it's a whole new set of issues around the computer-based testing. So right now we have rules in place that have been there for a long time. Over the next few years as we transition there are going to be some changes that we’re going to have to learn from.”
University of Wisconsin-Madison associate professor James Wollack directs the institution’s testing and evaluation center.
“Individual educators have a lot, you know, a lot on the line," Wollack said.
Wollack co-edited Handbook of Test Security, which is used by districts across the country. He says online tests make it harder to cheat. And he adds companies that run computer-based exams have the infrastructure to look for irregular patterns.
“I certainly don’t want to use fear tactics as the only approach," he said. "But I do I think it’s perfectly reasonable to remind educators that it’s increasingly hard to hide from this because the tools that are out there to detect it are getting better and better.”
The scandals that erupted in Atlanta and Philadelphia have brought increased security and scrutiny on high-stakes tests.
In Ohio, high-stakes tests are here to stay. Third-graders are preparing to take the state reading exam. Last fall, a third of them failed the test. Unless their scores improve, they risk being held back.