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In letter to state superintendents, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stresses testing integrity

A story in Sunday's paper explored situations unfolding in districts across the nation regarding cheating on state tests, and featured some experts who sounded off about the pressures that are mounting on schools to meet test score goals.

It seems that the U.S. Department of Education has taken notice. The Sun obtained a letter sent Friday from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to all state superintendents stressing the importance of testing integrity.

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The letter was timely, sent just a day after State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and city schools CEO Andres Alonso announced that two more city schools--Abbottston and Fort Worthington elementary schools--were confirmed to have cheated on recent years' Maryland School Assessments. The Sun broke the news on Thursday morning.

Duncan, who visited Baltimore's Abbottston Elementary in 2009--the same year the school was found to have cheated--stressed the importance of maintaining the integrity of state assessments across the nation, because they produce data not only used for assessing student progress, but is also critical for federal funding and programming.

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The Secretary also urged that if any of the data used for federal programs had been tampered with, that state's report it to the feds immediately. High irregularities, he wrote, or any tampering that rose to the level of broaching criminal activity should also be reported to the department's Office of the Inspector General.

Baltimore relies heavily on federal funding and programs, particularly Title I funding for its large and disadvantaged student populations.

Although state and district officials announced last week that both test scores and attendance--sets of data used to disseminate money to city schools-- had been tampered with, they did not know at the time if there were any serious implications on its federal funding and programming. Nor, could they say if they would pursue a criminal investigation into any of the tampering.

Below is Duncan's letter in its entirety, provided by a spokeswoman at the U.S. Dept. of Education.

June 24, 2011

Dear Chief State School Officer:

Educators rely on accurate, reliable, and timely information to improve instruction and help all students to reach and maintain high levels of achievement.  Indeed, the availability of valid, reliable, and timely data on student performance is essential for meaningful accountability and implementation of effective education reforms.

For these reasons, I am writing to urge you to do everything you can to ensure the integrity of the data used to measure student achievement and ensure meaningful educational accountability in your State.  As I'm sure you know, even the hint of testing irregularities and misconduct in the test administration process could call into question school reform efforts and undermine the State accountability systems that you have painstakingly built over the past decade.

In addition, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires that States establish and maintain an assessment system that is valid, reliable, and consistent with professional and technical standards (Section 1111(b)(3)(C)(iii)).

The successful implementation of Title I and other key programs administered by the U.S. Department of Education (Department) relies heavily on using data that are valid, reliable, and consistent with professional and technical standards.  Test security and data quality are essential elements of an assessment system.  The Department and each State and locality have a role to play in ensuring the integrity of the test data.

Under Title I, the Department is required by law to review and approve each State's assessment system, and accordingly examines evidence compiled and submitted by each State regarding its process for monitoring and improving the technical quality of its system.

During the review of State assessment systems, the Department specifically examines evidence of procedures and policies for test security and data quality, including training and monitoring of staff, to ensure the security of the assessments.

Ensuring effective implementation of security and data-quality procedures also is an important part of our Title I monitoring visits, as well as our monitoring of other Federal education programs in which data play a significant role.

State and local officials share responsibility for defending against security breaches and threats to data quality.  States have a long history in stewardship of academic assessments, and most States have made great efforts to ensure that their assessments and other data collection instruments are properly administered and that data security requirements are clearly specified and followed.

But with the nation's interest in improving education and our shared concern in protecting the integrity of our profession, as well as our investments and the public trust, ensuring the security of State assessment systems is a national interest as well.

Therefore, I urge you to make assessment security a high priority by reviewing and, if necessary, strengthening your efforts to protect assessment and accountability data, ensure the quality of those data, and enforce test security.  Among the steps that you can take are:

·         Conducting a risk analysis of district- and school-level capacity to implement test security and data-quality procedures.

·         Ensuring that assessment development contracts include support for activities related to monitoring test security, including forensic analyses.

·         Conducting unannounced, on-site visits during test administration to review compliance with professional standards on test security.

·         Seeking support to enact strict and meaningful sanctions against individuals who transgress the law or compromise professional standards of conduct.

As you may know, a State may use Section 6111 funds to ensure the continued validity and reliability of its assessment system, and the Student Achievement and School Accountability (SASA) staff at the Department is ready and willing to help you in such efforts.

Please do not hesitate to have your staff contact Carlos Martinez of SASA at 202-260-1440 or carlos.martinez@ed.gov.

Additionally, if you find irregularities or other problems with the integrity of data used for Federal education programs, please contact Carlos Martinez.

In cases involving fraud, potential criminal behavior, or significant irregularities, you should report this to the Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG) Hotline at oig.hotline@ed.gov or 1-800-MISUSED.  There are more details about contacting the OIG Hotline at the following Web address:  http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/hotline.html.

I appreciate your efforts in ensuring the integrity of assessment and accountability data and look forward to your continued cooperation in supporting the very best in academic assessment and ethical conduct.


Sincerely,

Arne Duncan

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