AJC investigation: Help on tests can cross the line



Third in a series: Earlier this year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an unprecedented investigation into test scores that found signs of potential cheating nationwide. Today, we examine the plight of students with disabilities or English-language deficits who need special “accommodations” to take standardized tests.

Even before the scores arrived in the mail, Patricia Dilworth suspected trouble with her daughter’s state test results.

A lot rode on the test for the Cobb County family. Dilworth’s daughter struggled with a genetic disorder that hampered her ability to learn. Other tests showed she often performed a year or more behind her peers.

Dilworth had been urging Varner Elementary to provide more help for the third-grader. But teachers and district officials assured her Ashlyn was on track, even though she had failed most subjects on the state test the year before. Dilworth hoped another failure in reading would keep the school from promoting Ashlyn to the next grade and give her a chance to catch up.

MORE IN THE SERIES:Part one: Suspicious school test scores across the nation | Part two: Suspect scores at premier schools Part four: Cheating thrives, investigations languish | Part Five: States can't ensure test integrity

So, on testing day in 2011, Dilworth grew concerned when Ashlyn said she hadn’t been allowed to mark the bubbles on her own answer sheet. That concern turned into alarm when the scores came in. Statewide, the average reading score dropped 1.5 points. But Ashlyn had not only passed the reading test, she had scored 29 points higher than the year before.

“That’s not even possible,” Dilworth said. “Especially for a child who is slow to begin with.”

Intense pressure for students such as Ashlyn to pass standardized tests, coupled with scattershot oversight of the unconventional methods used to test them, create an environment ripe for abuse, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation shows.

The Cobb family’s plight illustrates the particular vulnerability of the nation’s most academically challenged students when testing goes awry.

Inflated test scores can hurt any child by hiding an academic deficit from the adults who could address it. But the consequences can be especially dire for the students who depend the most on the scores to drive key decisions about their schooling.

For disabled students, a fraudulent score can alter the “entire trajectory” of a school career, said Georgia lawyer and disability advocate Leslie Lipson.

“They might get a reduction of services, which would only compound the fraud committed in the test scores,” she said. “It has reverberations.”

The reverberations have continued for Ashlyn a full year after the testing incident, Dilworth said.

“She’s just being pushed through the system, that’s all there is to it,” the girl’s mother said. “She wasn’t ready for second grade, she wasn’t ready for third grade, she wasn’t ready for fourth grade, and, guess what, she is going into fifth grade.”

Testing ‘accommodations’

Complaints about educators giving disadvantaged children inappropriate assistance on tests — or finding ways to exclude them entirely — have surfaced around Georgia and the nation in the decade since the federal No Child Left Behind Act became law. In March, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began a series of stories showing how cheating on standardized testing has become a national phenomenon, affecting even some highly regarded schools and districts in recent years.

The 2001 act aimed to offer millions of disadvantaged children new hope by forcing schools to pay closer attention to their academic performance. For the first time, schools had to break out and publish the test scores of disabled, poor and non-English speaking students.

If any subgroup of those students scored badly, a school could face sanctions for missing federal targets.

As a result, in schools such as Varner, the scores of just a handful of disabled or non-English-proficient students suddenly assumed new import: For staff, they could mean the difference between accolades and humiliation. In a system such as Atlanta, high scores could bring bonus money.

Opportunities for falsifying scores proliferated with the push to test and pass more students, according to documents and interviews with disability experts, parents and a teacher.

States including Georgia rely on testing “accommodations” to level the playing field for children with disabilities or English-language deficits. An accommodation for a deaf child, for instance, might involve a teacher using her hands to sign instructions that are typically read aloud.

Such accommodations are essential to include disabled and non-English-proficient students in testing. But the methods can also thwart test-security measures in ways that cannot be detected through screenings for cheating such as erasure analysis.

After testing in 2011, Patricia Dilworth said, a teacher told her that her daughter received an accommodation described as “mark in the test book” for portions of Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

Ashlyn said that when testing began, she was taken to the “English for speakers of other languages” classroom, away from her classmates. She sat with four other students. She received no answer sheet for the reading, English/language arts or math portions of the test and was told to circle her answers in the test booklet, which contains the questions.

When her mother asked about the arrangement, a teacher explained educators would transfer the answers from the booklet to an answer sheet for her daughter. “The local school system has a procedure in place for all children that have a ‘mark in the test book’ accommodation,” the teacher wrote in a note sent home.

Dilworth said she was immediately suspicious because her daughter had never had a problem marking answer bubbles.

“You fill in bubbles all the time at school,” the mother recalled telling her daughter. “I’m like ‘something funny’s going on here.’ ”

Ashlyn was permitted to sit in her regular classroom and fill in her own answers for the science and social studies portions of the test, Dilworth said. Those, however, did not count in calculations of whether Varner met federal standards, known as “adequate yearly progress.”

Math, English and reading do count. State law also forbids promoting third-graders who fail reading unless parents and teachers agree it is best for the student.

Cobb district spokesman Jay Dillon said Varner’s policy requires three to five teachers and an administrator to be present when answers are transferred from a test booklet to an answer sheet.

He would not comment on the appropriateness of Ashlyn’s accommodations.

Roughly 15 percent of children attending the racially diverse, middle-class school in suburban Powder Springs were classified as having disabilities in 2011. It wasn’t the only school in the Cobb County system to face a question about accommodations in recent years, district records show.

In one case, a fourth-grader at H.A.V.E.N. Academy’s Fitzhugh Lee campus in Smyrna with an IQ of 60 (100 is average) scored far beyond her abilities and said her teacher showed her which bubbles to mark during testing. The district’s recommendation to fire the teacher was rejected by a school board personnel panel for lack of evidence.

In another case, at Simpson Middle School near Marietta, records show, a teacher testing a special education student alone with a proctor provided multiple hints before the teacher declined to define a word. “Come on,” the student said, “cheat for me ... cheat for me!”

The district didn’t renew that teacher’s limited contract, Dillon said. Cobb referred the case to the state teacher licensing board.

In 2011, the number of students with disabilities who failed reading in Ashlyn’s class at Varner shrank from five the year before in second grade, to one in third grade, state data show.

The scores helped ensure the school would make AYP, if by a narrow margin.

Misuse alleged

In Georgia, dozens of schools have indulged in accommodations at a much higher rate than others, state records show. Some, however, curtailed the extra help the year that state authorities began looking into cheating.

In 2009, for instance, 240 schools each gave accommodations to 100 or more of their students on the reading test, state education data show. In some schools, virtually all students in some grades received accommodations.

Yet, the next year, with state and district monitors trawling the hallways for cheating, the number of schools using that many accommodations fell by more than half, to 89.

In 2009, Nesbit Elementary in Gwinnett County was home to the greatest number of accommodations of any school in the state. Nearly 40 percent of tested students — 463, most non-English-proficient — received accommodations at the predominantly Hispanic school near Tucker.

That changed the next year. Nesbit came under scrutiny for possible cheating in February 2010. The school had the highest percentage of classes flagged for suspicious erasures on 2009 tests — nearly 7 percent — of any Gwinnett school.

A few months later, when the school gave the 2010 tests, it drastically scaled back the number of accommodations, allowing just 50 students to use them.

Scores sank. While just 8 percent of second graders failed math in 2009, a full quarter of third graders did in 2010.

Gwinnett district officials said the drop in accommodations at the school occurred after it reviewed whether it was using them appropriately and made adjustments.

In the Atlanta district last year, state investigators reported accommodations were misused in schools where they found likely cheating. At Cook Elementary, low performers were pulled out of class and shuttled into smaller rooms for testing despite not qualifying for special treatment. At Harper-Archer Middle, some special education students scored higher than gifted students in math.

Former Cherokee County special education teacher Lori Ballington said the small, often secluded settings that disabled students are tested in can make them more vulnerable to test-tampering.

Ballington said the pressure to pass even the most disabled students is immense.

She said she was asked to resign last school year after telling Woodstock Elementary School officials she felt pressured to “white out” and change her evaluation and a date on a Georgia Alternate Assessment to make it appear as if a student had made more progress. The GAA measures the progress of the most severely-impaired students through a “portfolio review” of class work. A “pass” still counts for AYP.

“I’m like, ‘I’m in trouble, I can’t do that,’ ” Ballington recalled. “It’s not right, it goes against my faith. How can I look at my children and advise them to always tell me the truth?”

Ballington, who’d also had a dispute with school officials over scheduling a certification exam, filed a complaint. The school system did not substantiate it, but did recommend Woodstock officials review rules on completing alternate assessments. District officials said Ballington was not forced to resign.

Georgia education officials don’t limit the number of testing accommodations schools can use.

The education department’s testing division collects data on accommodations and requires that inappropriate use be reported, Associate Superintendent for Assessment Melissa Fincher said. In the past, the department has ranked them by subject area and type and followed up with calls to districts after seeing anomalies or inconsistencies.

But the department doesn’t look comprehensively each year across schools and districts for signs of widespread misuse.

Fincher said she knows anecdotally of instances where educators manipulated accommodations to boost test scores. Monitoring is complicated by the fact that federal law gives responsibility for choosing accommodations to educators who work with the student.

“It is very complicated,” she said.

Fincher wasn’t familiar with Ashlyn’s case, but said it was “odd” for a student’s disability to require an accommodation for only three of five subject areas.

“You wouldn’t expect that to be unique for just reading, English/language arts and math,” she said. “That’s what’s perplexing about this particular incident.”

Some states provide even less oversight of testing accommodations than Georgia.

A 2009 survey by University of Minnesota researchers found 12 states reported never examining the validity of accommodations.

A parent’s questions

Patricia Dilworth doubted the accuracy of her daughter’s 2011 CRCT scores the minute she opened the envelope.

For years, she had done math and reading exercises nearly daily with Ashlyn, consulted specialists and, at one point, hired a disability attorney. She knew what her daughter could and couldn’t do.

Ashlyn’s disorder, a chromosomal abnormality called 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, had spared her physically but caused cognitive delays. And in May of 2011, as she prepared to leave third grade, the girl still couldn’t sound out words.

The good reading score stood out like a sore thumb compared with the scores for other subjects, which Ashlyn failed or passed by just a few points.

“I knew then that it wasn’t correct,” Dilworth said.

She asked Varner’s principal if she could see her daughter’s test booklet and answer sheets, with other records, during a meeting scheduled for the following Monday. But the principal canceled the meeting, Dilworth said. A few hours later, Dilworth received another call — from a police officer who said she risked arrest if she set foot on school grounds again.

For years, Dilworth had pressed school and district administrators to provide more services for her daughter, resulting in an increasingly tense relationship. Her trust in the school evaporated in 2009 when she noticed someone had falsified her signature on a special education plan, which had also been back-dated. Two teachers received short suspensions for the improper date, records show.

But Dilworth said she had never threatened anyone and was never asked to leave campus. The only explanation she received for the criminal trespass warning was an email from campus police referring to complaints the principal made in a letter five months before the CRCT, accusing Dilworth of visiting the wrong hall when volunteering at the school.

Last week, Dillon, the district spokesman, also provided the newspaper a letter that an area superintendent wrote — but never sent — to Dilworth complaining that she was pestering teachers and administrators with questions and concerns about her daughter’s education.

The fall after the CRCT incident, Dilworth took Ashlyn to a Sylvan tutoring center. The girl had just begun fourth grade, but diagnostic tests showed her grade equivalent for reading comprehension and vocabulary was below or near the start of third grade. That jibed with her Iowa Test of Basic Skills results from the previous fall, when she scored roughly a year behind in reading.

Since then, Dilworth and school officials have been at something of a stalemate. Dilworth is frustrated with the school’s failure to provide her academic records she has requested. She said she needs to review those before meeting with school officials to discuss the CRCT and other concerns. She called the state, too, but said an education department official simply told her that her that her daughter’s “mark in the book” accommodation was generally permitted.

Dillon, the district spokesman, confirmed the trespass warning remains in place but said Dilworth can visit the school if she provides 24 hours’ notice and receives permission in writing from the principal.

Dilworth hasn’t filed a formal complaint. Dillon said the district will investigate if she does.

In general, however, Dillon said the average score change on a test is “irrelevant” to the score change for a single student because that child may have received special instruction.

Ashlyn, who recently turned 11, has continued to struggle, Dilworth said. She can’t read near grade level, doesn’t understand division and hasn’t memorized her multiplication tables. She can’t grasp scientific concepts, though her mother has tried to explain them.

Dilworth had hoped school would teach her daughter enough to gain independence one day. But given the family’s experience, she said, “I’m kind of preparing myself that Ashlyn might not ever live out on her own.”

In the spring, Ashlyn took the CRCT again. This time, she was permitted to bubble in all of her own answers.

The scores came in the mail last week. Ashlyn’s impressive strides in reading weren’t sustained: An 18-point drop erased most of the 29-point gain from the previous year.

-- Data analyst John Perry contributed to this article.

Accommodating disadvantaged students

Schools can offer testing accommodations to students who are not proficient in English or who have disabilities. Roughly 79,000 Georgia students received them in 2011. The two types of accommodations are “conditional” and “standard.” Conditional accommodations are the most expansive — they could involve using sign language to sign a passage that is supposed to measure reading ability, for instance — and are supposed to be used sparingly.

Standard testing accommodations are much more common. Examples include:

● Small groups

● Individual or study carrel

● Special or adapted lighting

● Large print

● Sign test questions

● Braille

● Repetition of directions

● Materials presented with contrast and tactile cues

● Student marks answers in test booklet

● Student points to answers

● Verbal response in English only

Source: Georgia Department of Education data and Accommodations Manual.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001

WHAT IT DOES

Test scores are the primary accountability measure. Student progress in math and reading are measured yearly in grades 3 through 8 with statewide standardized tests.

States could develop their own tests and have flexibility in how to use federal funding. Parents with children in consistently low-performing schools can move them to better schools or get tutoring and other extra help. The law supports development of charter schools.

Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 provides extra funding for disadvantaged children, mostly in high-poverty districts and schools. NCLB requires these and all schools to make “adequate yearly progress.” The law requires that the progress of subgroups of students, including students with disabilities and limited-English proficient students, also be tracked and improve. When subgroups are large enough, their failure to meet targets such as test-score improvement can cause their entire school to fail.

NCLB anticipates that by 2014 every American student will achieve grade-level results on standardized tests. Many educators say that is unrealistic.

WHAT’S HAPPENING

Amid debate on how to improve NCLB, Congress is more than four years overdue to reauthorize the act. In the meantime, 11 states, including Georgia, were granted waivers from NCLB earlier this year on the basis of proposals to achieve better results on their own.

Under its waiver, Georgia has developed a new index for assessing school performance, the “College and Career Ready Performance Index.” The index still requires schools to report the performance of subgroups and considers the gap between “high needs” students and “non-high needs” students when awarding schools one of four designations (alert, focus, priority, and reward schools).

Sources: Ed.gov, the U.S. Department of Education website, and www.doe.k12.ga.us, the Georgia Department of Education website

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

This is the third in a series of stories about test-tampering across the nation. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published installments in March and April.

In its first story, the AJC reported that an extensive data analysis showed that suspicious test scores in roughly 200 school districts resembled those that entangled Atlanta in the biggest cheating scandal in American history. The second installment tracked test-score changes over several years for 605 schools that won National Blue Ribbon Schools Awards and found statistically improbable test scores spiked at dozens of schools in the year they applied for the award.

For this story, the newspaper conducted about a dozen interviews with parents, a teacher, experts and district and state officials about the plight of students with disabilities or English-language deficits who need special “accommodations” to take standardized tests.

The newspaper also reviewed hundreds of pages of documents concerning accommodation use and allegations of cheating in Georgia, and analyzed a database showing accommodation use by school statewide.


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