The AJC analyzed 1.6 million records of standardized test scores across the country from 69,000 schools and found that school systems in some of the largest cities in the U.S. exhibited test score changes so drastic that the odds of these scores increasing naturally are considered one in one trillion.
While this analysis doesn't prove cheating, it reveals that test scores in hundreds of cities followed the same pattern that was found in Atlanta last year where teachers and school administrators in multiple schools were caught changing answers on students' tests to improve scores and make their schools' performance look better.
In the new national analysis, the scores in nine districts "careened so unpredictably that the odds of such dramatic shifts occurring without an intervention such as tampering were worse than one in 10 billion," the AJC writes.
One example given is the city of Houston where test results for entire grades of students jumped two, three or more times the amount expected in one year, the analysis shows. When children moved to a new grade the next year, their scores plummeted — a finding that suggests the gains were not due to learning.
Overall, 196 of the nation’s 3,125 largest school districts had enough suspect tests that the odds of the results occurring by chance alone were worse than one in 1,000. For 33 of those districts, the odds were worse than one in a million.
A common problem uniting many big-city districts with the most suspicious test scores is that many of them were facing takeover by the state if scores didn't improve quickly. In some cases, teacher's pay or even their jobs were on the line.
But the scoring problems were restricted to large school districts. Dozens of school systems in mid-size cities such as Gary, Indiana and Mobile, Alabama, also exhibited high concentrations of suspicious tests. Improbable test score spikes also showed up in rural districts, and even in an exclusive public school for the gifted on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Testing policy expert Greg Cizek, a professor of educational evaluation at the University of North Carolina, told NBC's Rock Center that this problem isn't just confined to Atlanta, Philadelphia or Washington, DC.
" . . . (I)t’s happening everywhere. If you’re not seeing it, it's because you’re not looking for it,” he said. “This kind of thing is all over. Wherever kids are at risk of not performing well and people want to … intervene in some way to, to make that student's performance better to make their school district be high achieving. Anywhere there are kids who are at risk of academic failure, you're going to find this.”
The fact that this kind of cheating may be going on nationwide has sent shockwaves through the U.S. education system.
“These findings are concerning,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an emailed statement after being briefed on the AJC’s analysis.
He added: “States, districts, schools and testing companies should have sensible safeguards in place to ensure tests accurately reflect student learning.”
The bottom line is that tampering with test scores does nothing but cheat students out of the education they deserve.
" . . . (T)he analysis suggests a broad betrayal of schoolchildren across the nation," the AJC reports. "As Atlanta learned after cheating was uncovered in half its elementary and middle schools last year, falsified test results deny struggling students access to extra help to which they are entitled, and erode confidence in a vital public institution."
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