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The number of Louisiana standardized tests that were voided for excessive answer changes is at its highest in three years. But the number thrown out for plagiarism has declined.

Both types of test security lapses are considered key barometers of potential cheating. They are enumerated in a report released this week by the Education Department on how many Louisiana schools were cited for testing irregularities and other problems in the 2013-14 academic year. Key findings:

— 230 schools were cited. That’s 15 percent of the more than 1,500 public schools and private schools that accept vouchers.

— 972 tests thrown out. That’s 0.05 percent of 1.9 million tests taken. In the previous year, closer to 0.03 percent of 1.9 million tests were voided. While the data on its face would indicate a rise overall in rejected tests, education officials said it’s inaccurate to compare the two data sets, because the state has changed the way it groups certain kinds of test voids.

Students typically begin standardized tests in third grade and continue through high school. The exams include the state’s LEAP and iLEAP tests for younger students and similar tests for students with disabilities, the high school Graduate Exit Exam and end-of-course assessments, English proficiency tests and ACT college entrance exam.

Test scores are crucial for all involved in public education. Students may be held back a grade, educators could be fired and entire local institutions might be shut down or seized by the state if children don’t perform.

The pressure, experts say, might cause either students or educators to achieve desired results through dishonest means. It’s happened before in Louisiana: Investigations of three New Orleans schools have raised questions about administrator cheating in the past five years, and widespread test tampering occurred in New Orleans schools in the 1990s.

Elsewhere, perhaps the most notorious example in recent years is the Atlanta cheating scandal, where a trial into educator misdeeds is continuing. Many insiders there say a top-down culture of deceit pressured educators to change students scores.

Statewide problems

The Louisiana Education Department has a variety of ways to check for testing problems. A scoring vendor examines tests after they are turned in, looking for excessive answer changing and apparent plagiarism. State officials descend on dozens of schools each year, noting test security breaches, and schools and school systems also report their own issues.

New this year in the cheating detection process is a partnership with the state office of inspector general, in which trained investigators will examine suspect situations. A small number of schools are already under review, though neither Education Superintendent John White nor his staff would name them. Even before introducing this added layer, Louisiana’s initial approach was generally in line with expert recommendations for detecting and preventing test cheating, as outlined in a federal symposium on the subject.

Still, irregularities happen. In the past school year, 129 Louisiana tests were voided for excessive wrong-to-right answer changing, up from 58 in 2012-13. And 68 tests were flagged – but not voided — for too many changed responses.

When comparing only those thrown out, last year’s numbers prove to be the highest since 2010-11, the year the state returned from a hiatus on checking for answer changes. The state abandoned the key cheating detection method in 2009 and 2010 due to budget cuts.

But even though the number of tests voided was comparatively high, the number of schools cited for answer changing, 13, was low. That means the problem isn’t widespread, department officials said.

And plagiarism, discovered through department test analysis, was down, they said. Only 75 tests were thrown out for that reason, down from 181 the previous year.

More self-policing could account, in part, for the lower plagiarism numbers. If a school catches students sharing answers during the test and requests voids, plagiarism analysts don’t have to void tests later.

However it’s hard to compare system-reported problems over two testing years, due to state data changes. About 650 tests in 2013-14 were voided after local school systems, state officials visiting schools, or ACT staff reported problems. Close to half of those were ACT tests.

The previous year, state officials voided only 134 tests for this reason, but ACT test voids, as reported by ACT staff, were not included among them. These and other changes to data presentation make it difficult to compare school-reported voids and test proctoring mistakes from 2012-13 to last year, state education spokesman Barry Landry said.

Test proctoring mistakes — when a teacher forgets to read the instructions aloud for students, or mistakenly gives students more time on a test — are called “administrative errors.”  In 2013-14, state officials voided 116 tests for administrative error. Educators administered 94 retests.

School-level issues

New Orleans again emerged on the erasures problem list in 2013-14, though none of the city’s schools had such problems the year before. The lone school cited for excessive answer changes was Gentilly Terrace Elementary Charter, which had to throw out 41 LEAP tests. The state flagged eight others.

The school, managed by the New Beginnings charter network, has had a recent dip in academic performance. It underwent a transition in 2013-14, with a new principal and staff. The erasures citation was its first in six years.

But no one cheated, Principal Edward Brown said. Rather, teachers misunderstood the rules and didn’t complete appropriate paperwork when they saw students erasing, he said.

Frequent erasures are common, especially with younger kids, he said. “They may start at number one, and later it may be off,” he said. “They have to go back and erase their answers and then come back and do it the right way.”

Jefferson Parish schools didn’t have any erasures, although 128 tests at 14 schools were thrown out for other problems. Spokeswoman Tina Chong said that’s less than 1 percent of more than 41,000 tests taken. “We take test security seriously on both sides of test administration, both for our proctors and for our students,” she said.

Staff must undergo mandatory training. Central office staff visit schools to serve as monitors. And tests are secured with tamper-evident seals in locked storage areas, she added.

At Bonnabel Magnet Academy High School in Kenner, which has repeatedly had past testing problems, ACT staff voided two tests. Another outlier was J.D. Meisler Middle School in Metairie, where 80 ACT tests were voided. Chong said system officials are still working with ACT to determine the problems.

In East Baton Rouge, the state voided 16 LEAP and iLEAP tests for erasures at Progress Elementary School, Capitol Elementary School and Beechwood Superintendent Academy, and flagged 11 others. These schools’ performance range from average to failing. The school system has come under fire in recent months, after a state Education Department’s audit revealed changed student grades and other records problems.

East Baton Rouge’s chief officer for accountability and assessment, Liz Frischhertz, said after the system learns of such issues, staffers interview the school’s students and educators. They examine the seating charts that test proctors are required to complete, to determine which children to interview. “If there’s any type of repetitive issue, we make sure that there is a monitor or proctor in the room specifically,” she said.

Another Baton Rouge area school with problems noted was Kenilworth Sci Academy, which state officials say had a “major” testing infraction, though no tests were voided. Examples of major infractions include phones in the testing room or administering tests on the wrong day, department officials said. As either action could potentially give students a leg up, schools are required to conduct an investigation and submit a corrective action plan to the department.

Baton Rouge area school systems with voided tests, 2013-14
System name No. of schools with tests thrown out Plagiarism Voids System reported voids Administrative error voids Erasure analysis voids
Ascension 8 0 16 0 0
East Baton Rouge 17 4 32 9 16
Livingston 4 2 3 0 0
Zachary Community School District 2 0 1 0 4
City of Baker School District 1 0 1 0 0
Iberville 2 1 3 0 0