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Regents approve funding bid for slate of test security measures

ALBANY — State education officials today received the go-ahead to request $2.1 million to expand the scale of the state’s test security program.

That funding, which the state legislature must approve, would support several policy changes. To catch cheating after it happens, the state will broaden erasure analysis to cover 10 percent of all elementary and middle school state tests. And as a preventive measure, teachers will be barred from grading their own students’ tests starting next year. The state is also requiring the city to boost on-the-ground monitoring of schools on testing days.

Deputy Commissioner Valerie Grey presented the new security measures to members of the Board of Regents during their monthly meeting today. The committee voted to approve the measures, and a final okay is expected when the full board convenes tomorrow.

The recommendations the Regents approved today were similar to those they first discussed last month, but there were two key changes. In the first, Grey said the state had abandoned a proposal to bar teachers from proctoring their own students’ exams after consultation with other states revealed that such a policy would be “highly unusual.” To compensate, Grey said, the state hopes to require districts to strengthen test-day monitoring. That proposal was not included in last month’s list, but was added after Regent Kathleen Cashin argued that a larger presence of test monitors was needed to prevent cheating.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislators must sign off on adding the funding to this year’s state education budget. But officials today appeared confident that the recommendations would go into effect. An open question is whether local districts will be able and willing to pay for additional test-day monitoring. In New York City, officials have said that school districts should not have to foot the bill for new security requirements the state sets.

Until now, the state has said it has had few systems in place to identify cheating on its annual tests. Instead, the state has relied heavily on local districts to handle their own test scanning and scoring — and their own investigations and punishments when cheating is suspected.

Since 2008, the state has conducted erasure analysis on a small fraction of high school Regents exams, but only as a limited pilot associated with a contract with a company that supplies tests. In today’s proposal, Grey asked for $1 million to fund an expansion of that program to cover 500,000 tests, or about 10 percent of the tests administered in grades 3-8. In addition, the department is asking for $700,000 to develop a system that would identify grading irregularities on free-response sections of tests.

Separate from the test security recommendations, the Regents also voted to ask for $200,000 to pilot computer-based tests that the state has said will be required statewide in the 2014-2015 school year in conjunction with the rollout of Common Core standards.

To supply these services, Grey said the state would pursue contractors with expertise in test security. She said costs would likely increase once the state hires an independent reviewer to look at the department’s process for handling cheating allegations and investigations, a move the Regents approved at their September meeting. Today, Grey said a selection process had already identified several candidates.

Many of the proposals are being pushed through quickly so that they can take effect for this year’s testing cycle. If passed, the erasure and reliability analysis would be used on the 2012 elementary and middle school math and English language arts exams, set to be administered in April.

For the 2012-2013 school year, the committee also approved a recommendation that would prohibit teachers from scoring their own students’ exams starting with the 2013 tests. In recommending a policy that would not take effect for another year and a half, Grey said the purpose was to send a message to districts.

“We think it’s important to say that teachers should not score their own exams,” Grey said.

The proposals came out of the test security task force that Grey has led since August, which State Education Commissioner John King formed amid high-profile news of cheating scandals in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Those scandals have heightened debate about whether test scores can be considered reliable tools to make high-stakes decisions about teacher evaluations and school closures.