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Tim Post, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published October 24 2013

Minnesota takes hands-off approach to test cheating

ST. PAUL – When it comes to uncovering cheating by students or teachers on statewide assessment tests, Minnesota takes a less rigorous approach than most other states.

While many states analyze test scores or do regular audits to find cheating, the Minnesota Department of Education relies on school districts to police themselves.

School district officials must discover test security problems, such as cheating by students or teachers, and report them to the state. Districts typically ask that compromised tests be invalidated. When that occurs, in most cases, the state’s only requirement is that district officials prove they trained teachers to properly give tests.

State education officials say they don’t have the resources or the authority to undertake thorough investigations, and instead concentrate on preventing cheating in the first place.

Whenever there’s a problem, such as students cheating or teachers offering to help during a Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test, school districts are required to notify the Minnesota Department of Education within 24 hours. The tests, called the MCAs, are used to determine how well students are doing academically and therefore how well schools and teachers are performing. The tests are given to students in the third through eighth grade.

Minnesota hasn’t experienced large-scale testing scandals like those that occurred in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., in recent years.

Across the nation, critics of such tests worry that attaching increasingly high stakes to assessments will boost incentives to cheat on the tests. Some states grade schools on their overall test scores, and many states require that students pass exit exams to graduate.

A report released this month by the Center for Public Education shows 38 states now require teacher evaluations to be tied to student achievement. Those evaluations can affect pay raises and hiring decisions.

Minnesota education officials say they’ve reduced the “high stakes” nature of statewide assessment tests, reducing any incentive to cheat.

Last year, the state began ranking schools not just on test scores but on multiple measures, including overall student performance. State education officials view the math, reading and science tests that make up the MCAs not as a way to punish poor performing schools but as a tool to target state and federal assistance to underperforming schools.

But that doesn’t completely remove the incentives educators or administrators might have to cheat during assessment tests.

School officials don’t want to see their building at the bottom of school rankings, and teachers know they’ll be judged by how well their students perform.

Minnesota’s new teacher evaluation system, which goes into place next school year, allows school districts to base part of a teacher’s performance evaluation on student test scores.

The state’s documented test security issues range from the seemingly trivial, such as a student listening to music during a math test, to more serious security infractions, such as a teacher helping students complete a test, according to a log of test security reports from the Minnesota Department of Education.

So far this year, 159 test security notices have been sent to the state.

Jennifer Dugan, the Department of Education’s testing director, is pleased with that number, considering the state has 333 school districts, and proctors hundreds of thousands of tests a year.

“We don’t have a test security notice from every school, or from every district, that’s indicating something that needs further investigation, so that’s reassuring,” Dugan said.

The full extent of some incidents, however, doesn’t end up on the Department of Education’s radar unless a whistleblower contacts the state.

That’s what happened in a recent case involving Ubah Medical Academy, a charter school in Hopkins, Minn.

In June, the school sent a test security notice to the Department of Education. The document only reports that “proctoring procedures were not appropriately followed” and the “testing environment was not secured.” The school’s director asked state officials to invalidate the test scores of three students.

In its response to the notice, the Department of Education asked for information on the charter school’s test security procedures, and whether proctors were properly trained to give assessment tests.

About a week later, Ubah Medical Academy provided four pages of documentation, including the school’s test security rules and a list of employees who had been trained to give assessment tests. From the state’s perspective, the case was closed.

A month later, an anonymous email to the department provided more details of the incident. It alleged the school’s testing director, Patrick Exner, changed student answers on three student tests.

It was the Graduation Required Assessment for Diploma reading test, an exit assessment that at the time Minnesota students needed to pass to graduate. Late in the spring, Minnesota lawmakers abolished the test, along with a similar one in math.

Exner, who had just been hired as a principal in the Minneapolis district, lost his position after district officials learned of the letter’s accusations. He no longer works for the district.

Although Exner declined an interview request, he said in an email that he had “complete confidence” in how the state handles test security.

Ubah Medical Academy officials didn’t respond to an interview request for this story.

Dugan said when the department receives notification of potential cheating or other test security issues, it doesn’t punish schools or the staff members involved. Instead, it concentrates on preventing future problems.

“All we’re asking for [is] ‘What are you going to do about it? What is that follow up action?’ ” Dugan said. “Not so much ‘What was their name?’ but ‘What are you doing about the situation? What steps or protocols will you put in place to insure this doesn’t happen again with another teacher?’ ”

Minnesota governs schools under the general premise that local school districts and individual schools know best how to handle problems, so the Department of Education treads lightly when it comes to test security investigations.

That hands-off approach shows up in a several recent test security incidents.

In June, the department received another anonymous allegation of cheating. It claimed a few teachers at Global Academy, a K-8 charter school in Columbia Heights, were allowing students to fix incorrect answers during testing.

The department forwarded the allegation to school officials, and asked them to respond with details on their test security plans.

“We were shocked that there was this vague anonymous testing allegation when it arrived,” said Helen Fisk, the school’s director.

Fisk found it hard to follow up on the allegation, since it didn’t include details on which teachers might have offered students help during assessments. Once Fisk sent documentation showing how Global Academy teachers were trained to proctor tests to the state, the Department of Education decided no further action was necessary.

Fisk said her school has never had a problem with test security in its six-year history. She maintains her staff has integrity, and would report any cheating among their colleagues.

Despite that assertion, she plans to spend more time discussing test security with teachers during their annual test assessment training in the spring.

“To be honest we really don’t think there’s any impropriety that occurred, but we still have to address the allegation,” she said. “We want to make sure that our testing has integrity and so we will address it.”

Another allegation of a teacher helping students during assessment tests has resulted in stricter test security for one Minnesota district.

In June, the Department of Education received a test security notice from school officials in the Virginia district. A parent tipped off school officials that a teacher was prompting students during an assessment test.

The department asked Virginia school officials to provide documentation of their test security procedures and a list of teachers that have been trained to give assessment tests. This time, department officials also expected the district to investigate the cheating allegation, although they didn’t offer advice on how that should take place.

Superintendent Deron Stender worked with his testing coordinator on the inquiry.

“At the end of the investigation, it wasn’t conclusive to say it had happened, yet we were not able to say it didn’t happen,” he said.

Stender thinks the teacher may have prompted students during a practice assessment test, and the third-grade students were confused, thinking it was the actual MCA. He said the investigation was complicated by the fact that the students involved were 8 years old – each with a different story.

But to be safe, the Virginia district told the state some sort of test security breach had happened, and asked that five test scores be invalidated. The Department of Education offered some guidance to Virginia school district officials in the follow up. If the same teacher gives tests in the future, the department recommended another teacher be in the room.

Stender said the district went a step further. The teacher involved in the original incident will no longer proctor tests. Stender wouldn’t say whether the teacher faced punishment, citing employment privacy rules.

In addition, the Virginia district now requires that two test proctors be in every classroom when students take assessments tests. Stender said that will create a paper trail of sorts, documenting every teacher-student interaction.

In contrast to Minnesota, most other states actively look for testing problems. According to a recent report by the U.S. Office of Government Accountability, 38 states conduct statistical analysis of test scores to scope out potential cheating by students or teachers.

Linda Calbom, the GAO’s western regional director, said the report found that the best way for states to prevent cheating on assessment tests is to combine strong test security policies with strong oversight.

“Having this additional step of oversight is really key – and not just monitoring but then following up if anomalies are identified,” she said.

Minnesota Department of Education officials, however, prefer to guide school districts in the area of test security with policies and training. Dugan, the department’s testing director, said they trust district officials will do the right thing.

“We’re doing a good job in the upfront training piece and always looking for ways to improve,” she said. “I think the districts are doing a really good job given their limited resources.”

Dugan said the Department of Education is considering stronger oversight of testing, but that would require lawmakers to make changes to state law and come up with more funding.

She said the department also is considering implementing a test security tip line, giving teachers, parents or even students a way to call in test security issues. That’s something 22 states now have in place.

Beyond those measures, state education officials aim to give local districts more resources so they can better train teachers how to properly proctor exams.

This article was produced with the support of The Hechinger Report, the nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.