Indiana Department of Education officials object to an article in the Sept. 30 Atlanta Journal-Constitution saying it ignored possible rampant cheating in Gary, and 82 other school districts, on the 2010 ISTEP-Plus test.
The article was written by reporters Michael Pell and Alan Judd. Judd said they had information from sources they could not reveal regarding the tests.
The article said the state education department "flagged Gary and 82 others for excessive erasures but didn't announce the findings in public and didn't notify parents of students in suspect schools."
The article is based on an erasure-analysis conducted by CTB McGraw Hill for the Indiana Department of Education reviewing the 2010 ISTEP-Plus scores. The state Department of Education declined to release the results of the analysis.
In a telephone interview Tuesday with Stephanie Sample, IDOE spokeswoman; Wes Bruce, IDOE chief assessment officer; Andrew Kossack, an attorney and IDOE deputy chief of staff; and Michelle McKeown, an IDOE attorney, they said erasures are just one of the measures they review to determine if cheating took place.
"No one can accuse the department of being soft on accountability," Sample said.
"On the same token, we will not put a teacher's professional integrity in jeopardy. Not in Gary or anywhere else. Unless we have concrete evidence and we can say for sure there was an issue, we are not going to drag a teacher or a school district over the coals. We're keeping an eye on the Gary public schools as well as all of the schools that were flagged. We're doing a multiyear look and if it shows a pattern of cheating, we'll follow-up aggressively."
Sample said while the department receives a small number of reports of cheating each year, there is no staff dedicated solely to taking and recording potential security breaches reported to the department. However, the department investigates all allegations or suspicions of cheating.
Kossack said, "The Atlanta article implies that we should have assumed that cheating occurred based on one piece of evidence, but it is not a 'smoking gun' by any means."
Bruce said it seemed like the Atlanta newspaper wanted the department to announce boldly that "schools are cheating on the test." Bruce said the state is currently analyzing data from 2010-12 to determine patterns.
How state analyzes possible cheating
Sample said once the multiyear analysis is complete, they'll be able to determine from the data if student test scores should be invalidated. "Our licensing and legal team will investigate further to see what needs to be done," she said, adding a teacher could lose his or her license.
When the erasure-analysis was completed in 2010, Bruce sent a memo to the superintendents of all flagged schools on Oct. 13, 2010. The memo said the state was using new technology that can detect and count how many student responses were erased and changed from incorrect to correct responses.
While the department expects a certain amount of erasures, Bruce said a detailed analysis of the new data found several schools had an extremely high number of changes.
Bruce also said the information would not be released to the public because it is an exception from disclosure under the Access to Public Records Act. IDOE will not investigate this issue further or institute any consequences this year based on the 2010 ISTEP-Plus results, he wrote in his memo to superintendents.
However, Bruce told superintendents he expected them "to look into each instance listed to determine the reasons behind the high rate of answer changes in these classrooms and document your findings."
Bruce said he never received a response from previous Gary Superintendent Myrtle Campbell. He said some superintendents responded verbally and others in writing regarding the erasure marks.
Bruce said erasures on a paper test can be caused in a variety of ways, including stray marks by students with poor fine-motor skills or who are messy.
"There are a number of legitimate things that can happen," he said.
Bruce also said third-grade classrooms get flagged more frequently because those students are taking ISTEP-Plus for the first time.
Gary Community Schools Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt said the school corporation will continue to take testing security seriously.
"The staff will continue to be properly trained and prepared to maintain a high level of integrity of the testing process," she said.
Pruitt said she will do some "fact-finding" and will talk to the state about the issues if irregularities have been found or determined.
"I will adhere to whatever has to be done," she said.
Terry Spradlin, director of education policy at the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at IU Bloomington, said he is aware of times when issues of cheating come before the state board of education.
"They have discussions about the significance and implications of misuse of the system, anomalies and erasure marks," he said. "The system that Indiana developed for teacher evaluations does tie evaluations to standardized test scores. The department has been very intentional about administering the ISTEP tests and the end-of-course assessments for high school students and to make sure the tests are given under appropriate conditions and safeguards."