Is the State of Washington Too Lax with Identifying Cheating?

Can a state claim that no cheating is going on in its schools if its attempts to detect it are perfunctory at best? According to Washington State education officials, the answer is yes, but Linda Shaw, the education reporter for the Seattle Times, isn't buying it.

Every year Washington officials trumpet their anti-cheating efforts by highlighting the training in testing integrity that they provide to the districts. Subsequent training offered to teachers and proctors is held up as proof that they take cheating very seriously. Yet, as Shaw points out, unlike other states around the country, Washington takes a passive approach to cheating detection by gently following up reports and doing none of the statistical analysis that uncovered massive cheating scandals in Atlanta, the District of Columbia, and possibly Portland, Oregon.

The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) does not pay the state's testing contractor to look for erasure patterns on student answer sheets that suggest someone changed wrong answers to right ones after the test. That's what dozens of teachers and principals in Atlanta are charged with doing, and some have confessed.

Nor does the superintendent's office look for improbably high gains in a school or district's scores or other suspicious results, such as a class full of students with identical answers to many questions.

The office does examine statewide scores to see if anything looks amiss. It also works to prevent cheating in the first place, which testing experts also stress as a key part of security.

Yet despite the growing number of cheating scandals across the nation — and the increasing importance placed on test scores — the office's assessment staff don't take the next step and analyze individual school-district and school scores, too.

According to officials, such analysis would be a waste of money because any serious irregularities in testing security would be reported to them by whistleblowers anyway. Christopher Hancrik, director of assessment operations for the OSPI, says that the agency monitors districts closely enough as it is and finds no point in asking for additional funding for cheating detection efforts at the moment.

However, previous experience in other states indicates that such a head-in-the-sand attitude is dangerously close to simply saying that they don't want to know. In the wake of a 2008 erasure analysis by The Atlanta Journal Constitution that uncovered cheating that implicated hundreds of schools around the state — and led to the indictment of celebrated Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall — 37 states now do some kind of post-test analysis. Washington is not one of them.

OSPI has strict procedures for everything from how to lock up exams before and after they're given, what teachers can say and do during testing, even what should happen if a student needs to use the bathroom.

The state asks school and district staff to report any irregularities — inadvertent mistakes, as well as suspected tampering. It also has a hotline for anonymous reports.

That helps. The state receives hundreds of reports each year about testing irregularities and this year, an Olympia science teacher turned himself in for using a photocopy of last year's fifth-grade science test to help prepare students for this year's exam. OSPI invalidated the scores of all 165 of his students.

But the state doesn't look for cases like that on its own. Even when suspected cheating is reported, OSPI largely turns to districts to investigate themselves.

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