Georgia’s Not on Their Mind: Local Districts Defend Themselves in Light of Report in Atlanta Newspaper Suggesting Test Cheating

Not too many people around Revere and Chelsea get down to Atlanta very often, but certainly news travelled fast this month from The Big Peach when it’s major daily newspaper alleged that both Revere and Chelsea Schools might be cheating on the MCAS standardized tests.

It’s complete poppycock, though, say local and state school officials.

“It really minimizes the hard work educators have been doing in Chelsea and Revere,” said Chelsea Schools Superintendent Dr. Mary Bourque. “All of us in urban districts face hard work head on and it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a sad day when strong performance is not congratulated, but suspected.”

The Atlanta Journal Constitution – one of the country’s more esteemed and respected daily papers – this month revealed a long-term investigative report into standardized test scores around the nation, looking at some 69,000 schools in 49 states.

What they found were 196 school districts that they reported had “suspicious patterns” in their testing results, and two of those districts were Revere and Chelsea public schools.

The investigative report by the Atlanta paper came as a follow-up to a scathing report last year where the paper uncovered a mammoth test cheating scandal throughout Georgia – rocking the fabric of the public schools there.

“The findings represent an unprecedented look at the integrity of school testing, which has seized center stage in national education policy,” read the paper’s report. “While the analysis doesn’t prove cheating, it found troubling patterns that experts say merit further examination. Those patterns resemble early indicators in Atlanta that ultimately led to the biggest cheating scandal in American history.”

The report looked at student progress from year to year, and flagged test results in individual classes that seemed to go up and down drastically.

In Revere, 5.5 percent of the city’s classrooms were flagged for “troubling” patterns in 2008. That climbed to 8.33 percent in 2010, and then 20.6 percent in 2011.

In Chelsea, 15.3 percent of the classrooms showed “suspicious patterns” in 2008, but had no flagged classrooms in 2009 or 2010. The paper flagged some 7.7 percent in 2011.

In addition to Revere and Chelsea – Fall River, Lawrence, Lynn, Malden, Medford and Marshfield were also listed as Massachusetts districts showing “suspicious patterns.”

“How do you cheat?” asked Revere Superintendent Paul Dakin – whose district has been the recipient of numerous state and national awards over the last eight years. “Wellesley students all score high and still are scoring high. There’s nowhere for them to go. They’re already up there. Here, we have a malleable audience that needs a lot of improvement and didn’t get a lot of help at home. We find them more help at school, we push them and expand their school day – and of course they’re going to increase at a greater rate than kids in Wellesley who are already improved. I would be aggravated if we didn’t make that list.”

Dakin said there are many issues that could determine why some students do well one year, and then fall off some the next year. He said it could be due to a weaker program, a weaker teacher, an exceptional teacher the prior year, or even differences in the test from year to year.

“The Grade 3 test in this state has a lot of kids who score perfect or close to perfect because it’s just a reading test,” he said. “They get to Grade 4  and it’s a completely different test with math and English and content and all the sudden the kids that were perfect one year before are now only proficient. It’s a function of the test sometimes.”

Meanwhile, Bourque said she is finding fault with the methods.

“The method was extremely flawed,” she said. “There was a presumption going into the data collection and analysis and conclusions. What ends up happening in this case is certainly the undercurrent and basic premise is that education reform cannot succeed no matter what you do and if you do succeed, you must be cheating. That’s a sad indictment on the researchers.”

At the state level, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) said they were aware of the report and talked directly with the paper about it. They also said it wasn’t going to trigger any investigation or inquiry into any of the districts mentioned.

“I’m not aware of anything we’re looking at in these districts identified,” said spokesman JC Considine. “We had some issues with the methods they used…It would be pretty unusual for the department here not to know of any unusual score gains. We have folks in the accountability office that run the numbers every year when scores come out who are looking for unusual score gains.”

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