Credit: Jessica Willams / The Lens

In three recent years, 33 New Orleans public schools have been flagged for problems and possible cheating on standardized tests, including an excessive number of changed answers, plagiarism and improper test proctoring, according to records provided by the Louisiana Department of Education.

Live chat replay: Jessica Williams discusses the reporting that led to this story

There were 51 separate instances of irregularities or infractions at those schools in 2010, 2011 and 2012, causing 130 tests to be voided.

The Lens counted 15 incidents that would be considered major infractions under state guidelines:

  • 4 incidents, involving 38 tests, of suspiciously high rates of changed answers
  • 11 times in which teachers administered tests improperly

Standardized tests are the primary factor for a school’s state-assigned school performance score. Traditional schools that continually score low could be taken over by the state; low-scoring charter schools could be shut down.

A lot rides on these tests for teachers, too. Their jobs could be at stake if their students don’t improve. Teachers in the Capital One New Beginnings Charter School Network received bonuses — one got $43,000 — if their students’ scores rose in 2012.

The Lens used state Department of Education records to examine reported irregularities and infractions on standardized tests in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Due to a change in record-keeping, the information provided so far for 2012 is not complete.

Over the three-year period, 12 schools had repeated problems. Most of them are RSD schools:

  • Dwight Eisenhower Academy of Global Studies, an RSD charter
  • Dr. King Charter School, an RSD charter
  • Edna Karr High School, an OPSB charter
  • Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School of Literature and Technology, an OPSB direct-run school
  • Dr. Charles R. Drew Elementary, an RSD direct-run school
  • O. Perry Walker College and Career Preparatory High School and Community Center, an RSD charter
  • Thurgood Marshall Early College High School, an RSD charter
  • F.W. Gregory Elementary School, an RSD direct-run school
  • International School of Louisiana, a BESE charter
  • George Washington Carver Senior High School, an RSD direct-run school
  • Langston Hughes Academy, an RSD charter
  • John Dibert Community School, an RSD charter

In response to The Lens’ findings, RSD spokeswoman Zoey Reed told WVUE-TV that the district “has greatly improved our processes and policies to ensure increased testing oversight. We have increased the number of testing monitors and have provided them with more training to prevent infractions.”

In 2013, Reed said via email, “we only had 2 test infractions in our 68 schools.”

There were problems at about 22 percent of the city’s schools in 2011, twice as many as the year before. A likely reason: In 2010, the state didn’t check tests for high rates of changed answers, citing budget cuts.

33Public schools cited for testing problems38Tests voided in 2011 for suspicious number of changed answers

The state didn’t check for high rates of changed answers in 2009 for the same reason, department officials told The Lens.

When the state resumed those checks in 2011, 18 public schools were cited for excessive erasures, including the four in New Orleans.

Not every violation of testing rules means someone cheated. For instance, state officials could cite a teacher simply for looking at her cell phone while proctoring a test. Perhaps she was texting someone; perhaps she was taking a photo of the test. Either way, it’s against the rules.

But one testing expert told The Lens that seemingly minor violations of testing rules are evidence that teachers and administrators are finding clever ways to help their students perform better on these all-important tests.

“I wouldn’t call them administrative errors; I would call that subtle versions of cheating. … The rules are pretty clear to everybody.”—David Berliner, regents’ professor emeritus of education at Arizona State University

“I wouldn’t call them administrative errors; I would call that subtle versions of cheating,” said David Berliner, regents’ professor emeritus of education at Arizona State University and co-author of “Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools.”

“The rules are pretty clear to everybody,” he said.

A few of these problems have been publicized before. Last year, The Times-Picayune reported that teachers at Robert Russa Moton Charter School had been investigated for giving students test questions in advance of the 2011 tests. Teachers at Carver High School and Miller-McCoy Academy for Mathematics and Business were accused of doing the same thing in 2010.

Still, most haven’t come to light until now, including the 38 tests that were flagged for a suspicious number of changed answers.

Four New Orleans schools cited for changed answers in 2011

Testing companies use a technique called “erasure analysis” to detect when an unusual number of answers on a test have been changed to the correct one. This is widely considered to be a reliable way to uncover cheating, although it’s not foolproof.

Data Recognition Corp. conducts erasure analysis on all iLEAP, LEAP and GEE tests. A test with excessive erasures indicates that a student got help or someone changed the answers later.

That’s what happened in Atlanta, where principals and teachers gathered annually to doctor students’ test answers. This analysis was key to the investigations that led to indictments of 35 Atlanta Public Schools administrators and staff.

In 2011, the Louisiana Department of Education voided tests at four New Orleans schools due to suspicious levels of changed answers:

All four schools are part of the Recovery School District. (Gregory, a direct-run school, has since closed.)

Statewide, 212 tests were voided for excessive erasures that year; Singleton had the third-highest number of tests voided for that reason.

Two separate groups of tests at Singleton were voided for excessive erasures. Fifteen were iLEAP math tests, in two classes of third-graders. Another eight came from one class of eighth-graders’ LEAP tests, also math.

Debra Robertson, Singleton’s principal, said that she didn’t know whether any employees involved were reprimanded because she didn’t work at the school then.

Tracie Washington, the lawyer for Friends of King, said that the tests at Dr. King Charter were flagged because the test administrator did not fill out the appropriate paperwork when she saw three students erasing a lot while they took the tests. The state requires teachers to document when they see that; officials review that before deciding to void anything.

Further, Washington said, “There had not been any indication of cheating [because] the students had different answers erased.” However, state officials said their analysis looks at the rate of erasures, not for similarities in the ones that are changed.

The school appealed the decision to void the tests, Washington said, but the state denied it.

An RSD investigation into the changed answers at Gregory was inconclusive, according to state Department of Education spokesman Barry Landry. The district’s test coordinator indicated that teachers would review testing rules before the next test administration, he said.

Adrian Morgan, head of the charter association that runs Eisenhower, declined to comment for this article.

Multiple ways to cheat

Though the Atlanta scandal and others have put a spotlight on teachers erasing wrong answers, there are other ways to cheat on standardized tests.

Data Recognition Corp. also checks all tests for similar written responses, which could indicate that a student peeked at another’s answers or used a cheat sheet, or that a teacher helped out with a writing prompt. Ten schools in New Orleans were flagged for plagiarism between 2010 and 2012 after problems were discovered by Data Recognition or a school, according to documents reviewed by The Lens.

The firm also notifies the state when a test booklet or an answer sheet is missing, which could indicate that someone swiped it to help out students who will be tested later. That didn’t happen in New Orleans in these three years, according to the documents.

And then there are problems with the administration of the tests themselves — something a teacher or someone else did that compromised the security or accuracy of the test.

Reports of Testing Violations at New Orleans Schools
Type of problem201020112012
Excessive erasures * 4 *
Plagiarism 5 4 1
Test administration error 7 12 8
Missing test or answer sheet 0 0 0
*2012 data is incomplete

The state may cite schools for minor problems, such when teachers don’t fully read aloud instructions, or more serious issues, such as a test administrator providing verbal cues for the correct answers. Both could be classified as an error in test administration, according to state testing officials.

According to state documents, 23 schools in New Orleans were flagged for such rulebreaking between 2010 and 2012. That includes errors that were serious enough to require retesting, as well as those that apparently didn’t compromise the integrity of the test. In addition to state monitoring, districts can report such problems on their own.

In 2010, the state found major infractions of testing rules at Miller-McCoy and Carver High School after visiting 29 New Orleans schools.

At Miller-McCoy, teachers accused administrators of providing test preparation materials uncannily similar to test questions. RSD’s investigation concluded that test results had been compromised. However, the school denied any impropriety.

“When I was taught to do it, I was told that if there are any loud noises, and if kids dropped a pencil … write it down.”—Robin Wright, former administrator at John McDonogh Senior High School

The newly disclosed problem at Carver that year is that a test administrator “was not in control of the class,” Landry said via email. “Secure test materials” were on students’ desks while they ate, and the test administrator read to the students so quickly that they couldn’t keep up.

The next year, 34 New Orleans schools were monitored. The state found major infractions at three schools: Edna Karr High School, Bethune and Abramson Science and Technology Charter School.

According to Bridget Brown, Orleans Parish School Board’s accountability and assessment specialist, the problems at Karr included a test administrator allowing students to use an unauthorized protractor during the math session and distributing reference materials before students started a writing section.

District officials told the state that no tests were compromised. To avoid future errors, the district retrained staff on proper procedures.

Brown said she couldn’t find documents that described what happened at Bethune.

At Abramson, a test administrator was cited for texting during testing, Landry said.

Test proctoring errors range in severity

Overall, test proctoring violations made up many of the incidents noted in state records – about 45 percent for 2010 and 2011.

Some appear to be simple mistakes. School director Mark Martin of Langston Hughes Academy said he couldn’t recall what would have caused his school to be cited for minor violations in 2010, but he did say that state officials gave conflicting guidance as to whether classroom doors should be open or closed during testing.

At Harriet Tubman Charter School in 2012, three teachers mistakenly gave students a time limit on a portion of the test that was supposed to be untimed. Later, administrators reissued that test to students on a different day. Both are against the rules.

But providing advance access to tests — which is what was alleged at Miller-McCoy, Moton and Carver — also would be considered a test administration error.

”The RSD has greatly improved our processes and policies to ensure increased testing oversight. We have increased the number of testing monitors and have provided them with more training to prevent infractions.”—Zoey Reed, Recovery School District spokeswoman

Moreover, what appears to be a minor misstep may actually be a subtle way to help students, said Berliner, the testing expert. In his research, Berliner has found instances of teachers hanging instructional posters on the walls during testing, giving students extra time, and even reminding students at the start of a test to remember a previous lesson that related to test material.

Berliner said he wasn’t surprised that proctoring errors constituted such a large portion of the violations because widely publicized cheating scandals have caused teachers to wise up to erasure detection.

“Once you know that there’s an alarm system,” he said, “you find a way around the alarm.”

Robin Wright, who was an administrator at John McDonogh Senior High School last school year and taught at Sci Academy the year before, said it’s more complicated than that. Some schools are just more vigilant.

“When I was taught to do it, I was told that if there are any loud noises, and if kids dropped a pencil … write it down,” she said. Other teachers and schools may not report such things, she said.

Strict rules for testing

The rules for administering standardized tests are laid out in state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education policy and test administration manuals. They’re comprehensive: In addition to numerous other directives, the manuals describe what is considered a violation of test security, explain how instructors should accommodate students with special needs and discuss the procedures for extending or adjusting time, if necessary.

Still, school leaders say they are bound to make mistakes from time to time.

In 2012, a teacher at the former Reed Elementary improperly read aloud a portion of instructions on the “reading and responding” section of the LEAP test to seven eighth-graders. The teacher was supposed to read some instructions aloud, but not for that section. The school reported it to the state and requested retests.

“This was a careless and honest mistake,” said Andrew Cox, ReNEW Schools director of data and assessment. “It was disappointing, and obviously frustrating, but these things happen.”

Wright joked that she and colleagues have had “papering parties” in which they cover up one another’s instructional classroom posters with paper — per the state’s rules — and arrange seats so that students can’t easily spot classmates’ answers.

She’s sure some teachers cheat — “because people get desperate.” But when a teacher cheats, “I’m secretly giving you the message that ‘You can’t do this,’” she said.

“If you need to do that, then you are not doing what you need to do as a teacher.”

Charter school reporters Della Hasselle, Marta Jewson and Heather Miller contributed to this report, as did WVUE-TV.

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Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...