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Stanford 9 cheating alleged

‘Teacher told me the answers,’ Walker-Jones students say

(Published March 22, 1999)


Staff Writer

Some D.C. students, whose high scores on last year’s Stanford 9 achievement tests contrast sharply with their poor report cards, say teachers gave them answers to the test.

Charges of cheating at Walker-Jones Elementary School are surfacing amid citywide concern over tying teachers’ and principals’ job security to student test scores. Teachers, parents and some school board members say they are concerned that pressure to boost scores may be leading teachers and principals to circulate advance copies of the test or exclude low-performing students from taking the test.

Concerns at Walker-Jones are under investigation as thousands of city students prepare to take the annual test next month.

"My teacher, she told me the answers," said Brittney Hardy, 7, talking to a reporter with her mother. "I raised my hand and said I didn’t understand the test. She came and pointed to the answer."

Brittney’s first-grade report card from Walker-Jones shows her reading, writing and vocabulary skills were consistently "unsatisfactory" and "below grade level" and she was assigned to repeat first grade. Yet she scored "proficient" in reading comprehension on the Stanford 9.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, widely credited for the rise in test scores last year, said she had no knowledge of the charges but pledged to conduct an investigation, after being informed of the allegations on March 18 by a reporter.

Ward 2 school board member Westy Byrd, in whose ward Walker-Jones is located, said she brought the allegations to Ackerman’s attention in a Jan. 14 letter to which the superintendent has not responded.

"I know somebody had to help my baby," said Debbie Brown, whose 9-year-old son Leeante was a special education student at Walker-Jones last year. "Come on now, be real. He can barely read."

Leeante said he also got answers to test questions from his teacher.

According to Leeante’s school records, he was "reading at a first grade level" at the time of the test. He scored "advanced" on the vocabulary section of the Stanford 9 and "proficient" in all other areas.

He told a reporter that when he picked his answer to a question, the teacher told him to "think it over again." He then picked different answers until she indicated he chose correctly.

Another Walker-Jones special education student, Ellen Smith, and her mother, Vanessa Jackson, described March 8 at a public meeting how Ellen and other students were given answers as they took the test.

Brittney’s mother, Shirley Hardy, said she met with Walker-Jones principal Antoinette Wells after hearing Brittney talk about being helped on the test. When confronted with the disparity between Brittney’s report card and her test scores, Wells suggested perhaps Brittney simply "had a good day," Hardy said.

Wells told The Common Denominator she knows nothing about charges of cheating at the school and directed press questions to the school system’s central administrative offices.

"There are certain things that are unacceptable," said Assistant Superintendent Joyce Jamison, who said she will handle the investigation. "We will not accept any kind of prompting of answers in any way."

Some are not surprised that teachers under pressure to produce improved scores may have given answers to their students or discouraged low-performing students from taking the test.

"Anything can happen when you are living in an atmosphere of fear," said Gail Dixon, at-large member of the elected school board. "Teachers and principals are worried about how their school is going to look when the test scores come in."

"The fox is guarding the hen-house," said school board member Byrd. "The very people whose jobs depend on the test results are administering the tests."

DCPS records show about 12,000 eligible students did not take the test last year. At Draper Elementary School in Southeast Washington only 58 percent of eligible students took the Stanford 9. Even after accounting for exempted special education students and absentees that day, school records suggest about 200 students were prevented from taking the test.

Several parents complained shortly after last year’s test that their children were assigned to sit out the test in school cafeterias or auditoriums, said Pat Bonds, a secretary at the Board of Education offices who said she took "a great many" calls from such parents shortly after the test.

Some of the 12,000 students may have been exempted from taking the test because they were special education students or because they had limited proficiency in English. But exemption is not automatic.

According to DCPS policy, each student in those categories must be individually evaluated prior to the test. Parents of children considered for exemption must be notified in writing and invited to meet with the teacher and principal to determine whether the child can take the test with special accommodations. Federal law allows students with disabilities to take the tests under a wide variety of special conditions, such as untimed, in private rooms or orally.

D.C. school administrators were unable to readily provide statistics on how many students were exempted from the test or how many took the test with special accommodations.

"It appears from the data that special education students were exempted wholesale from the test at some schools," said Mary Levy, attorney for Parents United, who has studied test data produced by DCPS administrators.

While some special education and language minority students did take the test, their scores were removed from the official DCPS report of student scores and from the school profile documents recently created by school administrators.

"The scores and the profiles just represent the regular student population," said school spokeswoman Denise Tann.

That sort of limited reporting gives the impression that student scores are higher than they actually are, Byrd said. She pointed to the recent result of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a reading test on which 90 percent of D.C. public school fourth graders scored below grade level, as a more accurate reflection of student achievement.

Others voice concern about test security. A veteran teacher at a Northwest high school, who asked not to be identified, said advance copies of standardized tests have never been difficult to get.

"Pretty much the security of the test is left up to the individual school districts," said Tom Brooks, manager of applied research at Harcourt Brace Educational Materials, which creates and grades the Stanford 9 tests.

According to Brooks, D.C. schools use a form of the test without added security features. "It’s pretty much just common sense. Copying the test, of course, is a copyright violation," he said.

The "secure form" of the test requires, for example, that the tests be stored at a location off school grounds. School officials also sign a security agreement agreeing to take specific precautions to prevent tampering or cheating, Brooks said. The District does not use the secure form of the test.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator