Fines, firing for test cheats


State education officials won't say what sanctions they might levy against Carroll County's school system, where two teachers were said to have cheated on this year's state standardized tests, but other districts in similar situations have faced penalties ranging from fines to firings.

"We take these violations very seriously," said Gary Heath, assistant state superintendent of accountability and testing for the Maryland State Department of Education. "We have a test security committee that is charged with protecting the integrity of these assessments."

Two Carroll County fourth-grade teachers have been removed from their classrooms after local officials said they discovered the pair had circulated copies of questions from the Maryland School Assessment reading exam to other teachers and pupils before the test. Educators in Maryland are prohibited from copying, reproducing, using or otherwise disclosing any secure test materials.

Local school officials are worried that one possible result - the invalidation of nearly 200 tests - could jeopardize the ability of two schools to meet state progress standards.

Recent cases elsewhere in Maryland offer some insight into how the state has handled similar situations.

In 2001, Montgomery County was fined more than $420,000 for the costs of redeveloping the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills after it was discovered that some teachers at Silver Spring International Middle School had given sixth-graders questions from the test days before it was administered.

A year before that, the state placed a five-year suspension on the teaching certificate of the principal at Potomac Elementary School in Montgomery County after she and a teacher gave fifth-graders answers and extra time to finish or change responses on a statewide test.

Both of the Montgomery County incidents occurred before the state began using the MSA tests in 2003.

About two weeks ago, the principal of Dr. Gustavus Brown Elementary in Charles County was placed on administrative leave because of allegations that she violated testing procedures, according to school officials there.

Nearly 50 pupils have been retested and Charles County officials are awaiting the state's review of possible sanctions against the system, said Katie O'Malley-Simpson, spokeswoman for the school district.

"We've done an investigation and forwarded those results to the state," O'Malley-Simpson said. "We're working with the state as to what are the next steps."

In the Carroll incident, Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said that a teacher at Linton Springs Elementary in Sykesville admitted that she had taken notes from the fourth-grade MSA reading exam last year while she was employed at another Carroll school and created a worksheet for her pupils to help them review for this year's tests, which were given from March 13-22.

She shared the worksheet with a teacher at Mount Airy Elementary, who passed it along to other fourth-grade Mount Airy teachers who did not know the questions had been copied from the MSA test. These teachers alerted the principal to similarities between the worksheet and this year's test.

Heath said he could not elaborate on the possible penalties Carroll might face because the state has not completed its review of the local investigation, but the state education department has several outcomes it could consider.

Sanctions could include a warning letter recommending that local officials redouble their training efforts, requiring pupils to be retested or invalidating test scores.

If the scores are invalidated - something Carroll school officials think is likely to happen - parents and pupils would receive actual scores. But the state would assign zeroes for those pupils' scores for the purposes of charting the schools' progress in meeting state standards.

The scores of 170 pupils - 23 at Linton Springs and 147 at Mount Airy - could be affected.

"If they count those students' scores as zeroes, it could push Mount Airy - one of our top-performing schools - below the AYP mark," Ecker said yesterday. "But I would still say that those fourth-grade teachers who came forward to report their suspicions did the right thing, and I'm proud of them because they did it regardless of the possible consequences."

State education officials use MSA results to determine whether schools - and school systems - have made sufficient progress to meet benchmarks, known as adequate yearly progress. Schools that repeatedly fail to progress face escalating sanctions.

Schools administer the MSA to children from third through eighth grade in math and reading, as well as to high school students in English and geometry, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

"Depending on what we do here, it could affect their AYP standing," Heath said.

But he added that a school must fail to make adequate yearly progress two years in a row before it enters the school improvement process, which requires school systems to provide remediation.

As of last year, none of Carroll's schools failed to meet adequate yearly progress standards.

More severe penalties could range from censuring the schools or school system, fines, revocation of teaching certificates, suspensions with or without pay, or dismissals. Decisions to fire or suspend staff members would be based on local recommendations, Heath said.

While test experts say cheating is not new, they suggest that increased significance of the results from standardized tests lies at the root of recent cheating incidents.

"Any time you increase the importance of testing to any group, you get more cheating," said John Fremer, a testing expert with more 40 years in the industry.

Fremer - president of a testing firm that helps develop assessments that minimize cheating possibilities - said that as school-system evaluations become more reliant on test scores, the pressures on teachers and principals intensify.

"These standards are very hard to meet," he said. "You have increased consequences for teachers and principals in schools, which add to the incentives to do a whole variety of things to improve schools' performance."

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